When Maria Sakkari started her 2021 season at the Abu Dhabi WTA Ladies Trophy in January, everything she and coach Tom Hill had worked on for the last year looked to be coming together.
"What's great about Maria is she's never satisfied," Hill told WTA Insider in January. "She's always looking to get better and better. We can finish the year at No.20 and other people will say I broke the Top 20 that's great. For Maria it wasn't good enough.
"Because she's like that and we have mutual trust and respect, she's a good listener and open to change. Once she buys into it she's fully invested in it. I think that's why she's had good success since the first lockdown."
After months of work to improve her serve and continue her evolution into a more aggressive-minded player, Sakkari, 25, powered through a tough draw, defeating Coco Gauff, Garbiñe Muguruza, and Sofia Kenin to advance to the semifinal. Though she lost to eventual champion Aryna Sabalenka, Team Sakkari boarded the plane bound for Australia, full of excitement for what could be a breakout Slam.
Then came the bad luck. On that flight, Sakkari and Hill were with passengers who tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Melbourne and had to go into a hard lockdown for 14 days in their hotel rooms. Sakkari did her best to stay positive and active, posting her daily workout routines, but she would leave Melbourne after a disheartening first-round loss to Kristina Mladenovic at the Australian Open.
"I think after the two weeks in Australia, stuck in the room, I lost a little bit of my identity, which is being aggressive but also making a lot of balls and playing physical matches," Sakkari said. "Even though I had a couple of good wins after that, I wasn't feeling it."
"So after Dubai, we spent a lot of time on court, to be honest. We just tried to keep my aggressive part and get back my 'boring game'. It feels now that I'm getting it back."
Sakkari's desired blend of offense and percentage tennis were on full display in her dramatic fourth-round win over Jessica Pegula at the Miami Open. Sakkari was the aggressor throughout the match, forcing the big-hitting American into a more defensive position. And when it was time to face down six match points, Sakkari fired five clean winners and came up with a gutsy second serve that earned a miss. The win earned her a spot in her first Miami quarterfinal, where on Wednesday she will face No.2 Naomi Osaka.
To help her find herself, Hill asked Sakkari to rewatch some of her matches from the last nine months to remind her of the player she had become.
"Tom was like, Look, I know you hate watching yourself playing, but we have to do it," Sakkari said. "So we sat down and we watched a few matches from Ostrava, because I think I was playing good tennis back then, as well. A few matches from Abu Dhabi. Just looked at what I was doing differently than the matches that I lost after the Australian quarantine."
What Sakkari saw was a player who exploded up into her serve and leaned into her heavy forehand at the right moments. She also saw a player who dug her heels in and played every point as if it was her last.
"Over the months she's become more understanding or aware of what she has to do in situations," Hill said. "That's not just score-wise, but also position on the court, how the opponent is feeling."
"I talked to Maria 12 months ago about how I wanted her to become more independent in the way that she doesn't feel like she always needs me. Part of that was, instead of her asking me what's wrong, I'm trying to get her to tell me what's wrong, even though I know what's wrong.
Taking ownership for Sakkari has meant embracing a move towards being a more offensive player. Always physically gifted with a mind towards grinding her opponents down, Sakkari and Hill have been working for years to shift her game.
As Sakkari has come to realize, there is still a wealth of untapped potential.
The Sakkari Serve: Before 2020 Restart/Since 2020 Restart
1st Serve Points Won
62.3% vs. 69.7%
Service Points Won
59.1% vs. 62.6%
Aces Per Match
2.96 vs. 4.86
"Up until I started changing my serve, we realized I was not using the power that I have," Sakkari said. "I'm lifting, I'm working in the gym, and I was not using that. I was not pushing enough with the legs, I had some technical issues in my swing. I don't have the height, but using my legs I can hit from a higher spot. I'm 170cm and if I use my legs I can be serving at 176cm."
Hill is quick to emphasize the improvements in Sakkari's serve did not come overnight. There was no magical technical fix.
"I took a video of her serve and I said technically what's wrong," Hill said. "She looked at it for a long time and she said I don't know. And I said there's nothing wrong with the serve. The only way you're going to improve this serve is through repetition. She bought into it.
"The serve is about feel. If you want to be able to hit the T or serve from the deuce side flat into the corner, you can only do that by doing it. It just takes baskets.
"Players don't really too much time to technically change a stroke because if you're not careful the player might lose confidence in the shot. So this five months [during the first shutdown] was a great time to work on some stuff.
While the serve is one component of Sakkari's improved offensive game, her in-rally power and decision-making have also been evident. Last summer, she played Serena Williams tight in back-to-back events, tallying a win over the American in Cincinnati, 5-7, 7-6, 6-1, before pushing her to the brink in a tough three-set loss at the US Open, 6-3, 6-7, 6-3.
"I think one of the things that really helped me is that I realized that my ball is pretty heavy," Sakkari said. "I have a lot of power and I've been using it the right way, but up until last year, I couldn't really control my power. I know it sounds funny, but it's true. I had to take off a little bit of pace because if I was hitting to hard I would miss many shots.
"So I think I found a way and I found my real pace inside the court. When I have an opportunity I just go for it, and that just comes with confidence."
"From the beginning, this is the direction we wanted to go," Hill said. Sakkari hired Hill three years ago after parting ways with Thomas Johansson. "A few years ago when I first started, Maria was a little bit more of a counter-attacker. her physicality was still unbelievable. But she would break down players physically and crack them mentally and that's how she would get good wins.
"But when I talk to Maria, I see where she wants to get to. We have the same image in our heads of how to get to the top. To do that you do need to be a little bit more proactive. You have to be willing to take your opponent on because you can. Hoping that the other player will miss will only get you too far. I think you saw that in Abu Dhabi, Ostrava, US Open, Cincinnati.
"It's super encouraging because I know from playing myself that it's not easy to change how you play. I'm not saying Maria is changing, but to take more risk on the court and be more proactive, it's tough."
Hill points to the evolution of players like Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber, who began their careers as counter-punchers but reached their highest heights by adding more offense.
"When they were in their early 20s, it was a successful strategy," Hill said. "But you look at this younger generation, Sabalenka, Rybakina, these girls have power. You need to have an aggressive game because if you don't they will hit you off the court. They're too good.
"The ability to win some cheap points, it just lets you breathe a little bit. If you think you have to hit 10 to 15 shots, it's mentally a tough battle. You can lose the point before you've started the point because you're overwhelmed. If you know ok, open court, go to the net, bang, it helps."
"It's taken three years to get here and I'm excited to see what can happen when Maria does this, because when you get deeper into the Slams you have to take it to your opponent. They're phenomenal players. They're not going to beat themselves."