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Dressed for revenge, Maria Sakkari fires opening salvo in WTA Finals with Pegula stunner
The No. 5 seed reversed a Guadalajara final defeat from last Sunday to open round-robin action on top of the Nancy Richey Group.
Published Nov 01, 2022
WATCH: Steve Weissman and Chanda Rubin weigh in on Sakkari's win over Pegula in Fort Worth.
FORT WORTH, Texas—Who said the Hologic WTA tour wants for rivalries?
The 2022 WTA Finals opened with a sequel of its most recent 1000-level final, a clash between world No. 3 Jessica Pegula and Maria Sakkari, who punched the final ticket to Fort Worth by finishing runner-up in Guadalajara.
Though she arrived under the wire, the momentum was clearly with Sakkari in her pre-tournament press conference as she projected smoldering confidence—think Taylor Swift’s “Vigilante Shit”—about the looming rematch.
“Obviously, it was energy, but I don't want to take anything away from her,” she said of the fatigue that factored into her straight-set defeat. “She played a great tournament and a great match. But I believe that I can do better this time. Things are going to change from my side.”
Pegula was equally wary despite coming off the biggest title of her career.
“I think maybe some people are, like, ‘Oh, well, she just beat her in Guadalajara.’ Maybe the thought process is, ‘Oh, it should be an easy matchup.’ But I think at the same time it's almost harder because obviously she's going to go back and try to change things,” she explained on Media Day.
“The courts are totally different. The surface is different. The balls are different. Not at altitude. There's a lot of dynamic that changes with that, and I'm going to try and stick to my game plan to what I thought worked well in Guadalajara, but that might have to change a little bit with the conditions.”
I had to tweak a few things on my on my tactic and everything that I did in Guadalajara, but obviously I was very, very tired in that match in Mexico. So I was reacting very slow. I was very, you know, I wasn't sharp. So I had a few days to recover and just get ready for this match. Maria Sakkari
The conditions indeed favored Sakkari, whose heavy topspin ripped through the court and robbed Pegula of her beloved high strike zone, combining for a 7-6 (6), 7-6 (4) win that puts her atop the Nancy Richey Group after Day 1.
“If you don't hit the ball, then the ball does nothing,” she said of the Dickies Arena Stadium Court. “If you don’t hit the serve, then it's not effective. So, you don't want to give the opponent the chance to be the first one that dominates the point. That's how it felt. To me that bounce felt very low.
“But I mean, it worked today!” she added with a laugh. “Nothing negative to say about it.”
Famed for her physicality and persistence, Sakkari has sometimes struggled to step into the court and play the sort of aggressive role that comes more naturally to Pegula. On a court where aggression is the only option, the Greek star is without doubt—and much more dangerous.
“The court also makes it very, very simple for my, from my side, just to know that that's what you have to do,” she mused after the match. “Of course, it depends who you play, and what you need to do in order to make their life tough. But at the same time, there is a base, let's say, that you have to start every match. And I believe that today I found that and it feels good to have a rough idea on how to play in this court.”
Sakkari’s emotional victory was highlighted by the presence of her grandmother, who promised to be at the WTA Finals in person when qualification felt far away over the summer. A fervent tennis fan who traveled the globe with Sakkari’s mother Angeliki Kanellopoulou, a former WTA player, she was last in the stands for her granddaughter in 2018 during a Madrid loss for Kiki Bertens.
“She was like, ‘Wow, that was a very high-level match.’ Just to have her around, to be with her and spend my time off a little bit with her and my parents, it's nice sometimes to have the people that you love and the people that are very close to you, who were since the beginning.
“I'm not a parent, but I'm sure that for a parent it feels great to see their kids doing, doing special things.”
Maria gave the Sakkari clan plenty to be proud of on Monday, and puts herself in pole position for a second straight semifinal appearance at the WTA Finals, having reached the final four in Guadalajara last fall.
The court also makes it very, very simple for my, from my side, just to know that that's what you have to do. Of course, it depends who you play, and what you need to do in order to make their life tough. But at the same time, there is a base, let's say, that you have to start every match. And I believe that today I found that and it feels good, to have a rough idea on how to play in this court. Maria Sakkari
To strengthen her case she will need to play Pegula’s part and win a second straight match against a tough rival, as Aryna Sabalenka rallied from a set down to shock No. 2 Ons Jabeur, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5.
And while Sakkari’s main goal is the title, the opportunity to rewrite the story of her season—in conditions that suit her—is one that appears to be fueling her in equal measure.
“In all these tournaments that I did well, I beat very good players,” she says in a tone that lands just short of defensive. “I beat Coco, I beat Pegula, so many players that maybe back then they were not Top 10, but now are Top 5 players.
“So, it wasn't never like I beat random players and I got here, it was always that I had to beat those good players to, in order for me to just stay where I am. But I didn't even know that that was my first Top 5 win this season because I always had in my mind that all these players that I played were Top 5 level.”
It seems Sakkari already believes it. This week is her chance to prove it.