WATCH: Sakkari led Bouzkova, 6-4, 3-1 before the Czech was forced to retire in the sweltering Montréal heat.

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The shifting schedules caused by the global pandemic have seen players return to tournaments radically different from their last appearance. Maria Sakkari last played up North in 2019, having never made it past the third round of a major tournament.

Two years later, the Greek star is a Top 20 player and Grand Slam semifinalist, one who could channel her exponentially increased experience to power through a hot day in Montréal and outlast Marie Bouzkova, who retired trailing by a set and a break.

“I honestly didn’t find it too tough because in Japan it was so much hotter!” Sakkari told me after the match. “I was well-prepared for today, to say the least, but in general I like these conditions. I felt good, but of course there will be others who struggle because they don’t like the heat.”

Famed for her supreme physical fitness, the No. 11 seed is undeniably riding the momentum left over from her long-awaited Olympic debut, where she reached the mixed doubles quarterfinals with Stefanos Tsitsipas but endured a narrow singles loss to eventual bronze medalist Elina Svitolina.

I didn’t sleep for three days! I was a point away from playing a Grand Slam final and I have to admit it still hurts, but if I keep playing at that level and channel that mental level I was able to achieve at the French, I’ll have more chances. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll lift the trophy. Maria Sakkari

“It was a unique experience. Coming from Greece—the birthplace of the Olympics—it was very emotional. I didn’t get to go to the Opening Ceremonies because I was playing the following day, but I did get to trade pins and meet so many amazing athletes in the Village.

“The whole time you’re there, you feel like you’re a part something big, something important. I can say it boosted my confidence in a way. I cannot explain in words how nice it was.”

The Spartan Sakkari is already enthusiastic for an Olympic return in 2024 and an opportunity for a full circle finish at Roland Garros, the projected tennis venue.

“I was very proud of myself just to get there, and so I really hope to stay healthy and give myself an even better chance next time because I want to win a medal one day, for sure.”

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Sakkari enjoyed a solid first Olympic appearance in both singles and mixed doubles with countryman Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Sakkari enjoyed a solid first Olympic appearance in both singles and mixed doubles with countryman Stefanos Tsitsipas.

It was in Paris that Sakkari came into her own, scoring back-to-back wins over 2020 Roland Garros runner-up Sofia Kenin and defending champion Iga Swiatek. Playing in the biggest match of her career, the 26-year-old came agonizingly close to a maiden major final, ultimately bowing out to Barbora Krejcikova in a 9-7 final set.

“I didn’t sleep for three days!” she admitted of the defeat. “I was a point away from playing a Grand Slam final and I have to admit it still hurts, but if I keep playing at that level and channel that mental level I was able to achieve at the French, I’ll have more chances. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll lift the trophy.”

Relentlessly competitive and undaunted by even the greatest of challenges, Sakkari is philosophical when it comes to what stands between her and another shot at major glory.

“When I’m nice to myself,” she muses, “I play well and I can go deep in tournaments. When I’m hard on myself, that’s when I have a tougher time competing. It’s a matter of how nice I am to myself and how much I support myself on my journey and through my work every day.”

Sakkari will next play Veronika Kudermetova or Yulia Putintseva for a spot in the third round; while she overcame Putintseva in their most recent meeting at the Western & Southern Open last summer, she will aim to avenge a 2019 loss to Kudermetova that came on clay in Istanbul.

But it bears repeating: two years later, Sakkari is a different player.

“I really like these tournaments: Canada, Cincinnati and US Open. It’s probably one of my favorite swings of the year, so I’m very excited to do well here. I’m excited to finally have my first win in Canada, too!”