ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- No.6 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece executed a stunning comeback in the quarterfinals of the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy on Friday, fighting back from a set and a break down to upset top seed Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, 2-6, 6-4, 6-3.
"The most important thing is that now, compared to before, I can come back from losing a set and a break," Sakkari told the press, after her victory. "Before I couldn’t. This is a very important thing for me."
"My fighting spirit and the way I fought in all these matches, I think, in general, can take you quite deep in the tournament," Sakkari added. "I’m really proud of the way I’m fighting and the way I can turn these matches around. I really want to keep it that way, because some days it really doesn’t matter how you play, but if you have that fight and belief, you can always come back."
World No.21 Sakkari came into the match with a 2-6 record against Top 5 opposition. The Greek, though, was able to notch a third win against that cohort with her grueling two-hour and eight-minute victory over Bencic, who is currently sitting at a career-high ranking of World No.5.
In their first meeting, Sakkari out-winnered Bencic by 20 to 13, and had fewer unforced errors than the Swiss as well, by a count of 17 to 20.
At the outset of the encounter, Sakkari ceded a break to Bencic right away, double faulting away the first game of the match. The Swiss took advantage and kept rolling, forcing errant returns from the Greek and chasing down everything Sakkari threw at her. After cracking a return winner to break Sakkari once more for 4-1, the top seed was fully in control of the opener.
Bencic, though, had to face two break points in the following game, but Sakkari’s miscues caused those chances to slip away. The Greek did well to fend off a set point at 5-1 and force Bencic to serve for the set, but the Swiss star was up to the task, coming back from 0-30 to hold serve and put her a set to the good.
After Bencic went up an early break at 2-1 in the second set, Sakkari was facing a dire deficit. However, the Greek fought back in the next game, firing two crosscourt passing winners, one apiece from each wing, to give herself two break points. On the second, Bencic blasted a backhand error into the net, and Sakkari was back in the hunt.
"When I broke back in the second set, it gave me a little bit more strength that I can turn the match around," Sakkari stated.
Sakkari continued to find excellent angles during the set, and at 5-4, the No.6 seed got to double set point after a wide forehand from Bencic. The Swiss saved one, but on the second, she misfired into the net with her backhand again, and Sakkari had completed her second-set comeback to level the clash at one set all.
The final set was fully up for grabs from the beginning, as both players let game points slip en route to an exchange of breaks in the first two games. It was Sakkari who finally claimed the next break of the set at a crucial time, going ahead 5-3 after a netted forehand by Bencic on break point.
Serving for the match, Sakkari had to grit her way through a tough final game, with Bencic saving two match points -- the first with incredible defensive skills to blunt the power game of the Greek. Nevertheless, the third time was the charm for Sakkari, as she converted her third chance after a long Bencic backhand, sealing her spot in the final four.
Sakkari will now square off against No.8 seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan in the semifinals. World No.25 Rybakina overcame French qualifier Oceane Dodin in three sets in an earlier quarterfinal. It will be their first meeting.
"I know that [Rybakina is] a very good player, she’s a big girl and she climbed the rankings pretty fast," Sakkari stated. "For sure, that means a lot. I just want to rest tonight and think about the tactics more."