World No. 22 Maria Sakkari pulled off the biggest win of her career in Abu Dhabi on Monday, stunning No. 4-ranked Sofia Kenin, 2-6, 6-2, 6-0, to reach the semifinals of the WTA 500 event.

Having lost the pair’s only two previous meetings, Sakkari seemed headed for another defeat as she found herself down 6-2, 2-2 after 40 minutes. But the match turned dramatically from there as Sakkari began playing more and more aggressively, and Kenin grew increasingly erratic—the Greek was unstoppable from then on, reeling off the last 10 games in a row for a one-hour, 31-minute victory.

Kenin finished the match with eight winners to 33 unforced errors, the last one a backhand into the net on match point. Meanwhile, Sakkari finished with more winners than unforced errors, 23 to 20.

"I think I was rushing a little bit too much in the beginning," Sakkari said. "Once I saw that what I was doing was not working I tried a different way. I'm glad I found a way to turn the match around."

Sakkari’s win over Kenin is her fifth career win over a Top 5 player, but the previous four had all come against No. 5s—Karolina Pliskova at Rome in 2018, Petra Kvitova at Rome in 2019, Belinda Bencic at St. Petersburg in early 2020 and Elina Svitolina in Ostrava at the end of 2020, after the restart.

Kenin would have risen to a new career-high of No. 3 had she reached the semifinals this week.

Awaiting the No. 9-seeded Sakkari in Tuesday’s semifinals will be No. 4-seeded Aryna Sabalenka, who won an absolute slugfest against No. 6 seed Elena Rybakina earlier in the day, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

Two of the biggest servers on the tour, Sabalenka and Rybakina came out of the blocks with nine straight holds on Monday—it was in the 10th game that Sabalenka drew first blood, breaking at love to take the opening set. Rybakina retaliated right away with a break in the next game and eventually found herself up a double break in the second set at 4-1—Sabalenka managed to get one of the breaks back but it wasn’t enough, and Rybakina held on until the two women were headed to a third.

But Sabalenka came out swinging in the decider, jumping out to a 3-0 lead, and the pair held from there until it was over, the Belarusian finally serving it out after an hour and 58 minutes on court.

“In the beginning of the second set I think I dropped my level a bit,” Sabalenka said afterwards. “But I think after 1-4 it was really good that I kept trying to come back and kept trying to find my game again, because it really helped me the rest of the match. It definitely helped me to win the third set.”

Sabalenka’s career-best winning streak is now up to 13 in a row—she went 9-0 en route to indoor titles in Ostrava and Linz at the end of 2020, and she’s gone 4-0 so far in Abu Dhabi to kick off 2021.


Sakkari takes out No. 4 Kenin in Abu Dhabi for biggest win of career

Sakkari takes out No. 4 Kenin in Abu Dhabi for biggest win of career

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The Belarusian leads her head-to-head with Sakkari, 3-1, winning the pair's last three meetings.

"We know each other really well. We practice a lot together," Sakkari said. "She's one of the toughest players to play out there—I've beaten her once, so I think I can do it again, but it's going to be tough.

"She's very powerful, and she's super confident right now."

The other semifinal will be an all-unseeded affair after Marta Kostyuk bounced back from a first-set blow-out to beat Sara Sorribes Tormo, 0-6, 6-1, 6-4, and Veronika Kudermetova pulled off the second big upset of the day, edging No. 2 seed Elina Svitolina in two hours and 35 minutes, 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (3).

The No. 46-ranked Kudermetova and No. 99-ranked Kostyuk will play each other for the first time.

Sakkari takes out No. 4 Kenin in Abu Dhabi for biggest win of career

Sakkari takes out No. 4 Kenin in Abu Dhabi for biggest win of career