FORT WORTH, Texas -- Tennis sometimes has a random sense of humor. Or is it more a sense of mischievous timing?
Eight days ago, Jessica Pegula defeated Maria Sakkari in the final of the Guadalajara 1000 event by a 6-2, 6-3 score. But there was an asterisk, for Sakkari earlier had finished her semifinal match against Marie Bouzkova after rain postponed it the day before following one set. The final was 7-5, 6-4, and afterward Sakkari said, “I just didn’t have anything in the tank.”
On Monday, they were again on opposite sides of the court, the opening round-robin singles act at the 2022 WTA Finals Fort Worth. This time, the tank was unquestionably full.
The No.5-seeded Sakkari survived a pair of taut tiebreakers to defeat No.3 Pegula 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4) at Dickies Arena.
“I was very aggressive,” Sakkari said in her post-match press conference. “If you’re passive, Jess is just going to make you run -- she’s going to hit the ball very hard, and it’s over.
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“I think it’s always easier for the player that loses the first match than the player that wins. The player that wins has all the pressure. I don’t think it ever crossed her mind that it’s going to be an easy match because she beat me a week ago. I never felt like she underestimated me today.”
And so, an energized Sakkari drew first blood in the Nancy Richey Group. The 27-year-old from Greece has struggled to maintain confidence across this uneven season. Back in March, Sakkari reached the Indian Wells 1000 final -- and then the curve flattened dramatically. Despite her Top 10 ranking, she was a .500 player from that point through the US Open.
And then she reached the finals in Parma and Guadalajara, which was enough to secure the last singles position in Fort Worth. A year ago, Sakkari reached the semifinals at the WTA Finals in Guadalajara. On Monday, that experience was in evidence; in the handful of points that ultimately mattered most, she was better.
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Sakkari came out looking fresh with a considerable pep. And then she and Pegula proceeded to play a terrific first set. It was only appropriate that it came down to a tiebreak. Pegula saved two set points before Sakkari ripped a forehand passing shot and left the court with a powerful fist pump.
The set ran 71 minutes -- one minute longer than the entire final in Guadalajara.
Sakkari rolled out to a 3-0 lead in the second, but Pegula gradually reeled her in. In the end, the 28-year-old American saved two match points to force a second tiebreak.
There was another prize beyond a leg up in round-robin play: Both players were looking for their first Top 5 win this season. Sakkari is now 1-2 in those matches this year, while Pegula fell to 0-6 and is 2-12 for her career.
Before the match, Pegula seemed to know this match would be more difficult than the score in Guadalajara might have indicated.
“Maybe the thought process is, 'Oh, it should be an easy matchup,’” Pegula told reporters before the start of the WTA Finals. “But I think at the same time, it’s almost harder because obviously she's going to go back and try to change things. The courts are totally different. The surface is different. The balls are different. Not at altitude.
“It’s weird playing each other so close together in such a short time span. Especially coming into here in such a big event. But I think we’ll always think of it as, it’s another week.”
Sakkari admitted afterward she didn't realize it was her first win against a Top 5 player.
“In all those tournaments I did well, I beat very good players -- I beat Coco [Gauff], I beat Pegula,” Sakkari said. “So many players that were not Top 10, but at the same time now they’re Top 5 players. I beat [Elena] Rybakina but because of the [Wimbledon] points that are not counting she doesn’t have the real ranking she’s supposed to.
Perhaps, but this is the year-end championships. When it ends next Monday, there will be nearly two months to reflect on the week in Fort Worth. In this format, the loss won’t hurt Pegula too badly if she can regroup in her two remaining round-robin matches against Jabeur and Sabalenka.
“Obviously, I had to do things different than last time,” Sakkari said in a Tennis Channel interview. “Last week was exhausting for me. I wasn’t very sharp in my reactions.
“I had to be very aggressive and change a little bit the tactics.”
Nancy Richey Group standings after Day 1