If you look at a battle between two tennis players as a series of debates between various strokes and strategies, then today’s Miami Open quarterfinal between Maria Sakkari and Naomi Osaka tilted primarily on one major assertion: Sakkari’s ability to apply pressure to Osaka’s second serve with returns that were repeatedly forceful and even frequently untouchable. Given that Osaka only converted 38 percent of her first serves, it was easy to see how Sakkari earned a 6-0, 6-4 victory in 70 brisk and blustery minutes. Asked how important this win was for her, Sakkari said, “I would say that it's for sure one of the biggest ones. I think also beating Serena was equally big.”
As the two walked on the court, the number 23 came to mind: Osaka’s current win streak, Sakkari’s Miami seeding. Osaka is not just a star. She is a supernova, earning victories and popularity in all corners of the globe. Sakkari’s fate remains uncertain, but unquestionably, the 25-year-old Greek’s devotion to the sport is vivid, revealed with her strong commitment to fitness and the gradual improvements she has made each year. Still, history favored Osaka, who’d won three of their previous four matches and, at least on most occasions, plays a better version of the power baseline game Sakkari also favors.
The short view noted that Sakkari had a liberated feeling, the result of having fought off six match points in the previous round versus Jessica Pegula. “As I told you and everyone in our previous press conference,” said Sakkari, “these wins, it gave me a lot of confidence. I don't know how it works for other players, but it normally gives me a lot of confidence.” But the longer view favored Osaka, who’d won three of their previous four matches and, at least on most occasions, plays a better version of the power baseline game Sakkari also favors.
All that past aside, the first three points began as anticipated, Osaka reaching 40-love on her serve.
Then came the kind of twist that makes sports the rare form of surprise that is not bad for you, but can actually be rather enchanting. Osaka lost her serve. Sakkari held, broke, held. Serving at 0-4, Osaka dropped her 13th straight point on serve. Sakkari closed out the bagel at 15.
It was the first time Osaka had lost a set at love since her last loss, a 6-0, 6-3 defeat versus Sara Sorribes Tormo at a Billie Jean King Cup match 13 months ago. The point tally: Sakkari 26, Osaka eight.
Sakkari’s tactical approach was simple. More notable was its flawless execution. Amid the wind—a notable intruder on this debate—Osaka struggled repeatedly with her toss, missing one first serve after another. Sakkari then moved several feet inside the court, imposing herself with aggressive returns that put Osaka in a rare position of defense. In rallies, Sakkari drove deep and down the middle until she elicited a short ball, then cracked big off either side. This is often how Osaka wins. But here, she was the one having the racquet taken out of her hands. The wind also repeatedly derailed Osaka’s flat, laser-like groundstrokes.
Then came the plot turn. In the first game of the second set, Sakkari held three break points. Most notably, at 30-40, Osaka tossed in a meager 70 mph second serve. Sakkari lined up a forehand—nothing but net. Soon enough, Osaka escaped. All now seemed headed in her favor, Osaka soon taking a 4-1 lead. Even if she still wasn’t serving much better, Osaka had begun to find the range, particularly with her backhand. As just about always happens whenever a player wins a set 6-0, Sakkari had nowhere to go but down as she crossed past the narrow line separating aggression from low margin. Live by the flat drive, die by the flat drive.
“I felt like I was getting there,” said Osaka. “I felt that even though it wasn't like pretty tennis—like, I like to try to play perfectly, but, you know, that doesn't really happen most of the time, so I thought even though it wasn't pretty tennis, I was trying to find a way to win the set.”
But just when it appeared a third set was likely, Osaka lost focus. Serving at 4-2, she was broken. The next two games proved most pivotal. Sakkari served at 3-4, 30-40 and missed her first serve. This is usually the moment Osaka flips the switch. But here, Sakkari struck a superb 95 mph slider right down the T for a service winner, eventually holding for 4-all.
Said Sakkari, “I think I lost that a little bit in the beginning of the second set. So focusing on my strategy was the key. I knew that if I can break her back, then, you know, I can serve clever and I can serve the right way to just come back and win the second set, as well.”
In that 4-all game, Osaka went up 40-love—and then lost five straight points, including two with late forehands, another with a double-fault. With a chance to break—her 15th break point of the match—Sakkari crushed an emphatic crosscourt backhand return that Osaka hit into the net.
“Yeah, definitely my serve wasn't, my first serve wasn't going in at all today,” said Osaka. “I'm not really sure if it's technical. I don't think so, just because I felt like technique-wise I have been getting better. I also feel like with Wim we always do, like, serve practices, and the rhythm at this tournament was pretty good. So for me I felt like today's service problems kind of came out of nowhere.”
This close to the biggest win of her career, Sakkari was cucumber-cool, opening the 5-4 game with an ace and a service winner. At 40-15, Osaka struck a backhand long. One suspects she’ll seek to forget this day at the office as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Sakkari will always remember it. Everything from the wind to the similar playing styles, to the striking peaks and valleys, made this match as zero-sum as tennis gets.