Naomi Osaka didn’t lose a tennis match she started on the WTA Tour for 13 months. Granted, the tour was suspended for a large chunk of that time, but the feat is impressive nonetheless. She withdrew before matches in Cincinnati last year and in the Gippsland Trophy this year. Other than that, she has no losses to her name since February 7, 2020. Before Wednesday, the Japanese star was on a 23-match winning streak that saw her lift two Grand Slam titles. Then, in the quarterfinals of the Miami Open, she ran into a Greek wrecking ball in the form of Maria Sakkari. Just like that, Naomi Osaka’s win streak was over.
Osaka off the pace, but it doesn’t matter
I think it’s fair to say Osaka wasn’t at her best in this match. However, even if she was I’m not sure it would have made much difference. It certainly wouldn’t have in the first set, a set Osaka lost 6-0. Sakkari was ultra aggressive, dismantling the former World #1 in 12 minutes behind a flurry of winners and few unforced errors. Sakkari won that first set, and would have done against anyone on any day playing at the level she did. However, what made the win special is that even when she dipped and Osaka woke up, the Greek just kept on coming.
Sakkari went down 3-0 in the second set before rallying from 0-30 to hold serve in the fourth game. Osaka looked certain to take the second and pick up the head of steam that had made her so unstoppable until this point. However, Sakkari found a way back into the set on the back of good, aggressive tennis and the odd unforced error from Osaka. Then, at 3-4 to Osaka, the defining moment of the match arrived. Sakkari spent the vast majority of her lockdown working on improving her serve. The result of all that work is that she now has one of the top ten serves in the women’s game, if not top five. Down a break point at 30-40 and on her second serve, the Athenian powerhouse trusted that work emphatically.
Labor in Lockdown Pays Dividends When it Matters Most
Sakkari fired a 95 mile per hour second serve down the T that was millimeters away from being an ace. Instead it clipped the frame of Osaka’s racket and was unreturned. The Greek went on to draw level at 4-4 and then broke in the next game, closed out the match and secured her first ever top five victory on tour. That trust in the work she put in isn’t easy. Modifications to one’s game often take time to implement, particularly at an elite level.
However, that serve embodies what makes Sakkari such a brilliant tennis player and such a likeable character. She works hard, really hard, and she is never happy with to just sit pat and be happy with the progress she has made. Every year since 2012 Sakkari has improved her year end ranking form the previous year. If she does the same this year, that makes a decade of continued improvement and development.
It is that continued improvement made her one of my WTA 2021 players to watch back in January. In 2020, Sakkari showed glimpses of top ten tennis. She finished the year ranked #22 despite not being able to play much on clay, her preferred surface. That all pointed to this year being the year she cemented her place inside the top 20 on the tour, a place she rightfully deserves at the moment. With a semifinal appearance in Miami, Sakkari is showing she is ready to start making deep runs in big tournaments. She had a poor start to the year in Australia, but has rectified that here and will surely push on when the European clay court swing gets under way.
Sakkari has the Tools to be a Top Ten Player
In fact, I think Sakkari is a top ten player on the WTA Tour. She would be closer to that group already were it not for the pandemic-altered ranking system. With her serve now well and truly fixed, she has all the tools necessary to challenge anyone on the tour. Sakkari is perhaps unrivaled on the tour in terms of athleticism and power. She is also strong off both wings and has good touch. A look at a few nifty drop shots in the second set of her quarterfinal against Osaka show that much. There is room for improvement in her net play, but the likes of Osaka have shown that you can win on the WTA Tour without it. As such, if she continues with this newfound confidence and aggression it is only a matter of time before she moves further up the ranks.
The Greek phenom is still just 25, with her birthday in July of this year. She is undoubtedly a late bloomer on the tour. However, she is making up for lost time with her relentless work ethic and will to improve. She has done exactly that for nine years in a row now. Don’t be surprised if she does so again in 2021. Ending Osaka’s streak is a big deal, but it may be the beginning of something much bigger for Maria Sakkari.
Main Photo from Getty.