Maria Sakkari, a finalist at the BNP Paribas Open a year ago, started this campaign by dropping the first set to Shelby Rogers. Sakkari had already lost to the American each of the three times they’d played and now a fourth defeat seemed likely.
Serving for the second set at 5-4, the sluggish No.7 seed lost the first three points but, oddly enough, looked and, more importantly, felt confident.
“I was 0-40 down, but I had that belief that I’m going to turn it around,” she said later.
And she did. Sakkari, summoning her fighting mojo and won going away, 2-6, 6-4, 6-0. It’s a trend that has repeated itself several more times, as the 27-year-old Greek player faces a massive moment in her career. She is the only Indian Wells women’s semifinalist yet to win a Grand Slam singles title. In fact, No.1 Iga Swiatek, No.2 Aryna Sabalenka and No.10 Elena Rybakina have combined to triumph in the past four majors.
More from Indian Wells
- Rybakina into Indian Wells semis; defeats Muchova in three sets
- No.1 Swiatek into second consecutive Indian Wells semifinal
- Sakkari reels in Kvitova to make back-to-back Indian Wells semifinals
- Sabalenka sweeps past Gauff into Indian Wells semifinals
On Friday, Sakkari meets Sabalenka -- whom she has beaten the past two times they’ve met in a 6 p.m. PT match. With a victory, Sakkari would contemplate a first Hologic WTA Tour 1000 title against the winner of the confrontation between Swiatek and Rybakina.
That would drastically change the temperature of a player who has, to date -- almost unbelievably -- won only a single title at the tour level. It happened in 2019, when Sakkari defeated Johanna Konta in the Rabat, Morocco final. She saw her ranking move from No.51 to No.39 and, at the time, it would have been hard to imagine that in the intervening four years there wouldn’t be another.
In 2021, Sakkari and Sabalenka seemed to be tracing similar trajectories when they each reached their first two major semifinals. Sakkari did it at Roland Garros and the US Open, while Sabalenka broke through at Wimbledon and the US Open. But although Sabalenka got to the semifinals of the 2022 US Open and collected her first major title at this year’s Australian Open, Sakkari could do no better than the fourth round in those five opportunities.
This one meant a lot 💜@mariasakkari | #TennisParadise pic.twitter.com/WDd1KVIYwZ— wta (@WTA) March 16, 2023
“I mean, it was expected,” Sakkari said of Sabalenka. “It was going to happen. She was knocking on that door for so long. It actually came, and I was very happy for her.
“It’s going to be very, very tough, because she’s feeling the ball really well.”
Twice last year, Sakkari progressed to the final of a WTA 1000 event. She lost in straight sets both times, at Indian Wells to then-No.4-ranked Swiatek and last October in Guadalajara to No.3 Jessica Pegula.
This time around, she has a bizarre kind of momentum going. She’s won all four of her matches in three sets and has come back from a set down in three of them.
There were times last year, Sakkari said, when she didn’t have that fight in her.
🇬🇷 Super Sakkari 🇬🇷@mariasakkari | #TennisParadise pic.twitter.com/HvGdM5fbVh— BNP Paribas Open (@BNPPARIBASOPEN) March 16, 2023
“One of them was San Jose, I just couldn’t be on the court,” Sakkari said after defeating Anhelina Kalinina in the third round. “I wanted, but I couldn’t. Madrid, I was also struggling big time. I’m a human being. I think I’m allowed also to have those weeks.
“It’s a horrible feeling. But I have to say that the last two matches, I started the match terrible. But then I felt like I couldn’t, but then I found a way to just fight and come back. Which is different than last year, which I’m very happy about.”
Karolina Pliskova also pushed her to the limit in the Round of 16, but Sakkari’s best effort came in the quarterfinals against Petra Kvitova. Incredibly, she came back from 6-4, 3-1, 15-40 down in the second set.
Sakkari is only the third player to reach the semifinals in Indian Wells history with three comeback wins, after Elena Dementieva in 2005 and Swiatek last year. She’s the second semifinalist to have won four three-set matches.
She has a wonderfully diverse game, too. Sakkari leads all women here with 15 successful drop shots and is second in aces (22).
“It is strange, but at the same time,” Sakkari said, “I’m just telling myself, ‘Look, you’re not playing your best tennis and you’re still winning and beating amazing players.’ I mean, my draw was, I would say, bloody tough.
Perhaps this delayed gratification might also suggest her base level has risen, that she can win against the best players at less than her best.
“For sure,” Sakkari said. “Sometimes maybe I’m too hard on myself, just expecting too much on the court.
“By just surviving and just finding ways, eventually I’m sure that my game is going to get better. I really want to see how it’s going be when I will start feeling good with my game.”
22 - Maria Sakkari has made 22 aces in Indian Wells 2023, her highest tally in a single tournament since the US Open 2021 (34). Danger. #TennisParadise | @BNPPARIBASOPEN @WTA @WTA_insider pic.twitter.com/dfM1aNg0m2— OptaAce (@OptaAce) March 16, 2023