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Maria Sakkari masters "3-F" tennis to shock Iga Swiatek, complete line-up of maiden major semifinalists
The Greek star unveiled an aggressive game plan to outlast the defending champion and continue her fairytale run at Roland Garros.
Published Jun 09, 2021
WATCH: Maria Sakkari stuns defending champion Iga Swiatek, 6-4, 6-4 to reach her first major semifinal.
The coach grabbed a cocktail napkin. “This is how the game looks,” he said. The expectation was that he was about to draw a rectangle. But instead, there was a circle, dotted with arrows, what the coach called “3-F Tennis”—fitness, first serves, forehands. Get that trio in order, he said, and the rest takes care of itself.
Maria Sakkari played superb “3-F Tennis” today, taking one hour and 36 minutes to end Iga Swiatek’s title defense effort with a masterful 6-4, 6-4 quarterfinal victory. Long one of the fittest players on the tour, Sakkari’s improved serve was the catalyst in dictating the direction of many a rally and often ending the point outright. Sakkari won 29 of 35 points on her first serve, including five aces.
No serve sequence meant more than when Sakkari served for the match at 5-4 in the second set. She began the game with a superb retrieval on her backhand side that opened the door for a forehand drop shot winner. At 15-love, an ace down the T, followed by an untouchable forehand that earned Sakkari three match points. But then came two winners from Swiatek. At 40-30, Sakkari directed her second serve to Swiatek’s forehand. Aiming it there had frequently been a primary tactic all match long. The plan paid off once again when Sakkari needed it most, Swiatek hitting the return wide.
“All credit to her because she also made me actually feel bad,” said Swiatek. “That's what players do to each other. She did that better today.”
This marks Sakkari’s first trip to the semis of a major. It’s also the first time any woman from Greece has ever gone that far. Sakkari’s mother, Angeliiki Kanellopoulou, was also a pro; her best effort here a pair of runs to the third round in ’85 and ‘87.
“Well, I don't want to get too excited because I don't have a day off tomorrow,” said Sakkari. “I still have to play, stay focused. But it's a big achievement, for sure. I'm enjoying, as I said on court, my tennis and myself. I have people around me telling it was going to come. You know, they were right. Maybe I was the one who was telling them, I was impatient, telling them, When and when and when? It actually came this week, so I'm happy about it.”
But it hadn’t started so smoothly for Sakkari. Swiatek broke her at 15 in the second game of the match and then served at 2-0, 30-15. Everything about Swiatek’s game, from the incredible whip-and-dip of her forehand, to her concussive backhand, excellent serve and tremendous movement, has upped the physical ante of women’s tennis.
In the wake of a first major title run, a great many players leave one uncertain if their Slam-winning game is sustainable. Not Swiatek. Having failed to drop a set at this year’s tournament or during her 2020 Roland Garros title run, Swiatek appeared on a missile-like course to becoming the first woman to win consecutive titles on the clay since Justine Henin had capped off a three-peat in 2007.
Given how powerfully Swiatek hits the ball, it was hard to imagine that Sakkari had the skills to go toe-to-toe with her. But Sakkari broke back for 2-all and it was clear that she too could be the hunter. Sakkari didn’t merely scamper. She smothered. Her movement and power compelled Swiatek to go for even more than usual. At times, the baseline blows struck by each gave hope for many more future matches between the two of them, conjuring up memories of the compelling ‘90s rivalry between Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati.
Serving at 4-all, Swiatek double-faulted, then netted a backhand to fall behind love-30. At 15-30, Sakkari laced a sweet inside-out angled forehand winner, then broke when Swiatek misfired a forehand wide. As Sakkari attempted to close out the first set, she went down 15-30, but won that point. A crisp ace wide at 30-all, followed by a long backhand from Swiatek, put the Greek one set away from the upset win.
“I was on my heels, so it's hard to make something of that kind of game,” said Swiatek. It also soon became clear that she was physically uncomfortable. Down 0-2 in the second set, Swiatek left the court for treatment, a nearly ten-minute break. Returning to the court with her right thigh taped, Swiatek held (she’d later say there was no significant injury).
Her momentum delayed, how now would Sakkari’s nerves hold up? Perfectly. She held at love for 3-1, at love for 4-2, at 15 for 5-3, that ninth game finished with another wide ace.
Seeded 17th here, Sakkari is the highest-ranked semifinalist and will next play unseeded Barbora Krejcikova. Their only previous WTA match came earlier this year in the opening round of Dubai, Krejcikova winning, 6-2, 7-6 (4). “Just to say the truth, I did not play well in Dubai. It was one of her best weeks. Credit to her. She played very, very good that week.”
Sakkari credited her coach, Tom Hill, citing his passion for analytics and the time the two spend studying video of her opponents. Originally from Great Britain, Hill’s tennis resume includes training in his youth at the IMG Academy, lettering at Pepperdine University and a coaching stint with Danielle Collins. He and Sakkari have worked together for three years. Said Hill yesterday, “just using her weapons and then trying to find ways to play to the opponent's weakness, it's working. She's growing in confidence. Her serve has improved a lot. Obviously physically she's amazing.”
But if Sakkari was generous in her praise for Hill, she was stingy when it came to explaining what made today’s effort so successful. Asked to explain her thinking in breaking down Swiatek’s massive forehand, Sakkari smiled and said, “I'm not going to tell you! There's no way I'm going to tell you what I was doing. I'm not going to answer if that was true or not.”
We await Hill and Sakkari’s next version of the contemporary cocktail napkin.