Greece has never been a hotspot for producing tennis superstars but success may well be on the horizon on both the WTA and ATP Tours, with Maria Sakkari leading the charge in the women’s game.
The 22-year-old has already cracked the top-50 in 2017 and is setting her sights far higher next year and beyond, having received the help of several tennis legends in the off-season.
Her coach and 2002 Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson linked up with the Greek talent in the build-up to the US Open, where she was downed by Venus Williams in the third round, before the pair charged into the semi-finals of Wuhan – one of the biggest events on the WTA Tour – having come through qualifying.
Maria Sakkari fact file
Highest ranking: 48
Current ranking: 51
Coach: Thomas Johansson
The Swede will remain in her camp for the foreseeable future, but the pair received a helping hand from two former world No. 1s when training together in Monaco, as two-time Grand Slam winner Marat Safin and his sister Dinara Safina both practised with the world No. 51.
‘When I arrived for my pre-season in Monaco I started practising with Thomas on the first day and suddenly Marat and Dinara came out on court,’ Sakkari exclusively told Metro.co.uk.
‘Obviously Thomas and Marat know each other very well from their days on court. In one Australian Open he played against him and they get on very well.
‘Marat was training for an exhibition in London at the Royal Albert Hall. Luckily, Thomas asked him if he would like to play on any of the days and we ended up hitting 10 days in a row together.
‘I was very lucky to have him and have a player like Marat to train with and Dinara, of course..‘
Sakkari tapped into the knowledge of the Russian duo as she continues to modify her own game ahead of the new season.
‘They helped my serve, because I changed that this year, and they had some thoughts on my game,’ she added.
‘We were practising quite a lot together, we were spending maybe two-and-a-half hours together every day. They helped me with a lot of things so it was great for me.
‘I had three top-10 players, two No. 1s and a No. 7 on court – that doesn’t happen very often!’
Johansson’s involvement has already yielded some impressive results, with a win over world No. 3 Caroline Wozniacki in Wuhan the pick of the bunch, but the pair are setting their sights far higher – and she hopes to surpass her tennis-playing mother Angeliki Kanellopoulou’s career-high ranking of No. 43 in the coming months.
‘It was my biggest result so far,’ Sakkari continued. ‘Without Thomas, I don’t think I would have made it to the semi-finals and beating all these players match after match.
‘I think practising with him and his mentality as an ex-top-10 player helped me beat Caroline, [Elena] Vesnina and [Alize] Cornet.
‘My goal next year is to break into the top-30. That’s what I’m working on so that’s my goal and my coach’s goal as well.
‘It’s tough. I know I need a lot of good matches and a lot of very good wins. But in the future, I would like to be in the top-10.
Sakkari Grand Slam record
Australian Open: Round three (2017)
French Open: Round one (2017)
Wimbledon: Round three (2017)
US Open: Round three (2017)
‘I think that’s the reason we’re working together – he believes in me and he believes that I can make it and I can maybe win a Grand Slam so that’s our goal.’
Sakkari has grown up watching a generation of some of the greatest players in history and she takes plenty of inspiration from three legends of the sport in particular.
‘I like the character of [Rafael] Nadal inside the court – he’s a fighter,’ she said.
‘Roger is Roger. He’s the one and only. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a player like him.
‘Serena [Williams] is the only [WTA] player lately that was winning Grand Slams all the time.
‘Her ability and her balance when she’s playing is perfect. I really admire her.’
So are there any similarities between her game and Williams’? ‘We have nothing in common,’ she laughed.
‘She’s a completely different player. She’s unique. No one is like her. Maybe her sister. I admire her as a player and an athlete.’
Williams is due to return to tennis in Melbourne, where she will attempt to defend her Australian Open crown having taken time away due to pregnancy.
With fellow multiple major winners Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka all hoping to return to the peak of their powers in 2018 after treading the water this season, the WTA field could be as crowded as ever.
But Sakkari believes the sport has evolved and a rise to the top is by no means inevitable for any of the returning party.
‘I think tennis has changed for the past two or three years,’ She added. ‘Players like [Garbine] Muguruza, [Elina] Svitolina, all these players – they’re playing really well now.
‘Obviously, I think they’ll be great but it’s going to be tougher for them because all the young girls are playing well at the moment.
‘For Serena, it’s going to be easier because Serena is Serena. That thing doesn’t change. But at the beginning, I don’t know how she’s going to prepare or how she’s going to come back.
‘I think she’s going to have some tougher matches than before.’
Sakkari hopes to add to the difficulties of the returning cast through her own game, and she hopes that a strong start to the hard-court season and perhaps some new-found success on clay can propel her on her way.
She said: ‘I think my strength is my positional play on court and I’m quite fast and strong from the baseline so that’s the reason I had to work on my serve so I can maybe win more points off my serve and be more aggressive. That’s our goal for the next season.
‘I prefer hard courts but Thomas says that I will play well on clay as well, which I haven’t done already. I think hard court is my favourite surface so let’s see how I get on.
‘We’ll see how it goes this year.’
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