When it comes to facing the very best in the world, Maria Sakkari is on a roll.
Sakkari beat world No 2 Aryna Sabalenka in their final WTA Finals group match on Monday to book her place in the semi-finals of the season-ending tournament in Guadalajara.
The victory not only ended her four-match losing streak against Sabalenka, but extended Sakkari's winning run against top-five players to seven in a row. The streak dates back to February 2020 when Sakkari beat Belinda Bencic, who was ranked No 5 in the world, in the quarter-finals in St Petersburg.
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She has since followed up with wins over:
- World No 5 Elina Svitolina in 2020 Ostrava
- World No 4 Sofia Kenin in 2021 Abu Dhabi
- World No 2 Naomi Osaka in 2021 Miami
- World No 5 Sofia Kenin in 2021 Roland Garros
- World No 4 Karolina Pliskova in 2021 US Open
- World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka in 2021 WTA Finals
The last time that Sakkari lost to a top-five player was in Brisbane in 2020 when she was beaten in three sets by Naomi Osaka.
"I think I'm just closer to them now,” the world No 6 said after her 7-6(1) 6-7(6) 6-3 win over Sabalenka. “My ranking shows that, my results shows that. It's just that I'm really getting closer to them.
“I proved to myself and everyone that I can beat them like I did today."
The match between Sakkari and Sabalenka was the longest of the WTA Finals so far at nearly three hours. Both players had chances to serve out the first two sets before clinching them in tiebreaks, and Sabalenka’s serve then proved to be her downfall as she fired down 10 double faults in the final set, taking her total for the match to 19.
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"I think it was a rollercoaster match from both of us," said Sakkari. "I was up a break, then she was up a break. It was just a matter of who took the chances. I think at the end I just played with my heart and fought well, just turned things around."
Next up for a Sakkari is a clash against in-form Anett Kontaveit, who had won 28 of 30 matches, including 12 in a row, before losing her final round-robin match to Garbine Muguruza.
Kontaveit beat French Open champion Barbora Krejcikova and Wimbledon runner-up Karolina Pliskova in straight sets in her first two matches in Mexico, and powered past Sakkari in their last meeting in the final in Ostrava in September.
“I told her in Moscow that I'm going to see her here," said Sakkari. "I'm very glad that she's here because she's a very nice person and she deserves it.
"But it all comes down to obviously who plays a better match tomorrow. I'm going to fight for it, do whatever I can to advance to the final. I just really want to enjoy tomorrow's match because the atmosphere here is just unreal.
"I'm not going to have so much time to rest. My fitness level is, I believe, one of the best on tour, without being arrogant, but I believe fitness is one of my strengths. I'll do everything to recover. If Anett is better tomorrow, it's too good. But I'll try to recover and just take advantage of the good things I felt today on the court."
Sakkari will have just 24 hours rest before she faces Kontaveit, while the first semi-final will take place on Tuesday evening between fellow Spaniards Paula Badosa and Muguruza.
Badosa saw her eight-match winning streak ended with a loss to Iga Swiatek in her last round-robin match on her 24th birthday. Muguruza qualified for the semi-finals with victory over Kontaveit in her final group match. The winner of the semi-final will be the first Spanish woman to make the WTA Finals since Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario finished as runner-up in 1993.
"This is amazing,” said Muguruza, who was beaten in the semi-finals in 2015. “1993, I was born that year. It's amazing there are four players left and two of them are Spaniards. I mean, that just shows that Spain has a great level of tennis and a great school. It's going to be a fun match….historical. Hopefully the crowd is going to be on the match. Whoever plays better is going to get the final."
This will be the first time that Muguruza and Badosa have met on tour, having played for Spain at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in the summer.
"I've been very happy for her," said Muguruza. "She started the year obviously further back. She made her way to the top playing amazing, winning Indian Wells. We shared fun moments in the Olympics. We've talked a little bit. We get to know a little bit more of each other. It's a special week to bond. "She's always had the talent. I think now she's putting the puzzle together. She's playing great. Everybody can see it."
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