Sakkari ends Osaka winning streak in Miami quarters

No.23 seed Maria Sakkari brought No.2 seed Naomi Osaka’s 23-match winning streak to an end in stunning fashion in the Miami Open quarterfinals, claiming victory 6-0, 6-4 in just 69 minutes.

Osaka had not lost a match in over a year. Since falling 6-0, 6-3 to Sara Sorribes Tormo in last February’s Billie Jean King Cup qualifiers, Osaka had put together the ninth-longest unbeaten WTA Tour run since 2000, including both the US and Australian Open titles.

But Sakkari delivered an impeccable performance, striking 22 winners and coming from 0-3 down in the second set. By contrast, Osaka would commit 23 unforced errors and find only five winners. Afterwards, Sakkari ascribed her win to the gameplan she had devised with coach Tom Hill.

“I don’t think tennis-wise it was like the best tennis I have ever played in my life,” said Sakkari. “I think I executed our strategy with Tom really well. I just did what I had to do. I’m not gonna tell you what. What we discussed before the match, I just did it most of the match, except maybe a couple of games where things didn’t go right.”

Interview: How Maria Sakkari unleashed her power and rediscovered her identity in Miami

The Greek, who had escaped six match points against Jessica Pegula in the previous round, has spoken about working on aggressive tactics while rediscovering her on-court identity in Miami. Her improvement is illustrated in her recent record against elite opposition. Today’s result is Sakkari’s sixth Top 5 win of her career, and fourth in a row.

Maria Sakkari’s last four matches against Top 5 players
2020 St. Petersburg QF, d. Belinda Bencic 2-6, 6-4, 6-3
2020 Ostrava R2, d. Elina Svitolina 6-3, 6-3
2021 Abu Dhabi QF, d. Sofia Kenin 2-6, 6-2, 6-0
2021 Miami QF, d. Naomi Osaka 6-0, 6-4

The opening set was astounding. Two clean return winners from Sakkari enabled her to break Osaka from 40-0 up in the first game, and the 25-year-old didn’t look back. Continuing to tee off on her opponent’s second serve, Sakkari dropped just eight points in the set, and one – a double fault – behind her own delivery.

A shellshocked Osaka was almost entirely unable to find the court, contributing 12 unforced errors in 34 points, frequently within the first shot or two of a rally.

The result was the 15th bagel set Osaka has received in her professional career, and eighth at WTA or Billie Jean King Cup level. She had won four of those matches, though, most recently overcoming Anna Karolina Schmiedlova 0-6, 7-6(4), 6-1 in the first round of Roland Garros 2019. As the second set got under way, Osaka showed resolve in attempting to repeat that.

Naomi Osaka’s WTA/BJK Cup-level bagel sets received
l. Timea Babos 7-5, 6-0, R3 Miami 2016
l. Christina McHale 6-0 ret., Q2 Birmingham 2016
d. Barbora Strycova 6-1, 0-6, 6-4, R2 Wimbledon 2017
l. Kurumi Nara 6-3, 6-0, R1 Tokyo 2017
l. Simona Halep 6-1, 6-0, R2 Rome 2018
d. Anna Karolina Schmiedlova 0-6, 7-6(4), 6-1, R1 Roland Garros 2019
l. Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-0, 6-3, Billie Jean King Cup Qualifiers 2020
l. Maria Sakkari 6-0, 6-4, QF Miami 2021

Committing to longer rallies and finding more first serves, Osaka saved a total of six break points in her first two service games of set two, and in between broke Sakkari to take control of the scoreboard. The Osaka backhand was firing, while Sakkari’s aggressive strategy was resulting in more overpressing mistakes.

But despite Osaka raising her game, Sakkari refused to let the set get away from her. A blitzed backhand winner enabled her to break back for 3-4 – the second key break from 40-0 down of the match – and from there Sakkari began to dominate again.

A tentative Osaka was unable to execute with her usual power. Serving at 4-4 and in control of the point, she opted to carefully steer her backhand from line to line instead of hit out on it. Sakkari duly punished this with a pinpoint lob, and went on to break by unleashing on a backhand return.

“I just had a little bit of time in the changeover [down 1-4] and thought about the strategy again,” 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 I can serve clever and I can serve the right way to just come back and win the second set, as well.”

2021 Miami Highlights: How Sakkari snapped Osaka’s streak for SF spot

2021 Miami

Having feasted on Osaka’s subpar 41% first serve percentage all match, Sakkari was indeed able to close out her second win in five meetings over the former World No.1 with a minimum of fuss. She thus books her place in the third WTA 1000 semifinal of her career following Wuhan 2017 and Rome 2019.

Gallery: Great Escapes 2021: Winning from match point down

Sakkari also becomes the first Greek woman to reach the Miami semifinals since former World No.14 Eleni Daniilidou defeated Jennifer Capriati and Karolina Sprem to reach that stage in 2004.

“You know, there is a lot of respect from my side to Eleni, and I think there is a lot of respect from her side to my side,” said Sakkari of her compatriot, the highest-ranked Greek woman in WTA history. Sakkari, who hit her own career high of World No.20 last February, has Daniilidou’s milestone in her sights.

“We get along really well, and she was a great player and great champion. I looked up to her when I was young. You know, her results were very, very good for a Greek tennis player because we don’t have a tradition in Greece. It’s just that I really hope I can do as well as she did and maybe better. I’m sure she will be happy for me.”