Maria Sakkari says that you don’t have to be a top junior player to make it to the top of tennis as she prepares for her first tour finals.
The 26-year-old was considered a unremarkable junior player, reaching a career high rank of 203.
But after a slow start, she has now cemented her place at the top of the game and contends the WTA Finals this week in Guadalajara as one of the elite eight players in the women’s game.
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And Sakkari believes her story shows that an unexceptional start in tennis should not deter players from carrying on, even when there were times her competitors seemed so out of reach,
"They were so far away,” Sakkari told the Guardian. “They were so much better. I could clearly see that they were another level.”
Seeing these players now, I don’t want to sound arrogant, but at the moment being the better player than some of them, it proves … you can tell many juniors that you don’t have to be a top junior to make it to the top.
Sakkari admits she almost left the game to go to college, and credits her parents with helping her stay in tennis despite a lack of financial support from a tennis federation.
Her and men’s star Stefanos Tsitsipas are the first two Greeks to be ranked in the top-10, but Sakkari’s mother, former world number 43 Angeliki Kanellopoulou, offered plenty of guidance.
“I was lucky to have parents like my parents because they invested a lot and I had zero support from federations or sponsors,” she said.
“My father paid so much for me to play tennis and I’m very grateful for what he has done and they have both done in order for me to achieve my goals.”
Sakkari made her grand slams debut at the 2015 US Open, and after developing under 2002 Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson, she made British former hitting partner Tom Hill her coach when he was just 23 years old.
“It’s nice to have someone your age who really understands you and really supports your decisions,” she says.
Maria Sakkari | Tennis | French Open 2021 | ESP Player Feature
Image credit: Getty Images
Sakkari went on to reach the top 20 in 2020 after overcoming frequent dips in form, and says that hiring a specialist to help with 'negative thoughts' has been the biggest game changer.
“Being deadly honest, I’m working with a specialist,” she says. “I’m not hiding it from anyone. It’s probably one of the best gifts I’ve ever given to myself because that improved me as a person and it improved me as a player as well. It’s the best thing in that part of my career, it was my turning point and it definitely was one thing that I will never regret.”
Sakkari’s mental fortitude was tested at Roland Garros this year as she held match point in a semi-final against Barbora Krejcikova.
She ended up losing the match, and admitted in her post-match interview that the stress of reaching a final got the better of her, but says that the experience has taught her how to better handle the pressure.
She then went on to beat three top ten seeds at the US Open, before falling to Emma Raducanu in the semi-finals.
But that run of results cemented her place at the WTA Finals, a huge confidence boost for the player who always believed that she could make it.
“I knew that I could do it but I told myself that I’m capable of doing it [this year],” she added.
It came this year, which is great.
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