Maria Sakkari will return to the last four of the WTA Finals. The No.5 seed from Greece booked a spot in the semifinals of the year-ending championships for the second year in a row after moving past No.7 seed Aryna Sabalenka 6-2, 6-4 in 97 minutes.
"If you’re not aggressive on this court, then it’s just game over," Sakkari said afterwards. "If I was passive, especially against [Sabalenka], the biggest hitter on the tour, then it’s just bye-bye. I just went for it. If I’m not going to go for it here, when am I going to do it?"
Here are some takeaways from Wednesday night's round-robin match in the Nancy Richey Group:
Experience is key in Fort Worth: Both Sakkari and Sabalenka are back at the WTA Finals for the second straight year, but not without struggles. In pre-event press, Sabalenka called it a “miracle” she made the event, while Sakkari termed her season “very challenging.” Neither of them won a singles title in 2022.
But with the experience of playing last year’s WTA Finals under their belts, both of them won their opening round-robin matches over higher-seeded players who were making their WTA Finals debuts (Sabalenka over Ons Jabeur, Sakkari over Jessica Pegula).
And Sakkari, who has the experience of making it into the semifinals last year, will get there again, thanks to her 2-0 start in the Nancy Richey Group. By winning in straight sets, Sakkari advanced to the knockout rounds, although the group winner is yet to be determined.
The Greek was the last player to make it into the 2022 field, eking past Veronika Kudermetova in a winner-take-all Guadalajara quarterfinal just over a week ago. Since she clinched that final spot, her game has freed up significantly.
Sakkari had garnered only one win over a Top 10 player all year before making it to Fort Worth. Now she has notched two Top 10 wins in a row this week, repeating her feat from last year’s WTA Finals where she beat Iga Swiatek and Sabalenka back-to-back.
"It’s been a long time since I’ve had straight-sets wins against these players, so it feels very new again for me," Sakkari said. "Being able to win [against] these players in straight sets, it’s impressive, and it’s finally paying off."
The break point eraser: Sakkari took a commanding 6-2, 3-0 lead against Sabalenka, seemingly cruising into that semifinal spot. However, Sabalenka turned up her power plays and dropped in some slices to win four straight games and take a 4-3 lead in the second set.
Sakkari had to prevail in a bevy of lengthy all-court rallies to break Sabalenka again for 5-4. Even serving for the match in the next game was a challenge, with Sakkari saving three break points before she converted her first match point with an error-forcing crosscourt forehand.
All told, Sakkari saved five of the seven break points she faced in the match. Saving break points was the story of her run to the final in Guadalajara, and in fact is a critical component of her season. Sakkari has saved 282 break points this season, more than any other player on tour.
Sakkari also made the decision to stand further back on return than she did in her first match against Pegula, giving herself more time against Sabalenka's booming deliveries. It paid off, with Sakkari winning 65 percent of points against the Sabalenka second service.
Second spot still at large: The unpredictable nature of round-robin means that Sabalenka still has everything to play for. Despite her loss to Sakkari, Sabalenka is still in the mix for a semifinal spot, depending on how results go in the Nancy Richey Group on Friday.
Sabalenka will face Pegula, who is also not yet eliminated from semifinal contention. Jabeur, the other member of the Nancy Richey Group, also still has a shot to make it out of the group stage.
Sakkari, though, can be secure in the knowledge that she is in the final four again, no matter how her Friday match against Jabeur goes. And she has collected 39 match-wins this season, a career-high total. Her previous career-best came last year, when she won 38 matches.
"I’m very motivated to play [Jabeur] again," Sakkari said. "She’s in top form. ... I’m going to take this match the same way I did the last two, and just try and get another good win, because I think that’s going to help me not only for the semifinal, but also next season."