Swiatek, Sakkari set sights on Guadalajara

 - Reem Abulleil

Pole and Greek hope to secure qualification for the WTA Finals with strong runs at Indian Wells

Maria Sakkari and Iga Swiatek© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

This time last year, a 19-year-old with a mean topspin, an infectious smile, and a signature white cap, was blasting her way to the Roland-Garros title, without dropping a set, to become Poland’s ever first Grand Slam singles champion.

Unseeded and ranked 54 in the world at the time, Iga Swiatek took Paris by storm to claim her first tour-level silverware and announce herself as a force to be reckoned with on the women’s circuit.

Fast-forward 12 months and Swiatek is once again looking to finish her season on a high, as she chases one of the four remaining qualification spots in the WTA Finals line-up.

Smiling Iga Swiatek during Roland-Garros 2021© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

A consistent campaign

Up to a career-high No.4 in the world and ranked No.7 in the Race to the WTA Finals, the young Pole is proud of how she backed up her Roland-Garros exploits with a strong and consistent 2021 campaign that saw her clinch titles in Rome and Adelaide.

“For sure I’m pretty happy that I’ve reached my goals that we had at the beginning. We didn’t really know what to expect when I started the season, because playing as a Grand Slam champion is always something tricky, we didn’t know how exactly I’m going to react,” Swiatek told reporters in Indian Wells, reflecting on her past 10 months.

“We worked pretty hard and after one hard tournament before the Australian Open (the Gippsland Trophy in Melbourne), I really got stressed in my first round and I worked through that and at the Australian Open it was much, much better.

“And since then I think I kind of understood how it is playing as a Grand Slam champion and you know it’s not that bad when you’re just focusing on the game and on tennis and you’re doing what you’ve been doing for the past 10 years of your life. So I’m pretty happy I was consistent throughout this whole season and that was basically my goal.”

Eye on the Finals

Swiatek is the only woman to reach the fourth round or better at all four majors this year, and she’s hoping to secure her place in the upcoming season finale in Guadalajara with a deep run at Indian Wells this fortnight, where she is making her tournament main draw debut.

She kicks things off in the California desert on Friday against Petra Martic (at 20:00 Paris time), and feels she has enough left in the tank to make one big final push for the year.

“I’m pretty happy, first of all, that I still have energy and motivation, because that’s my first (full) year on tour and I didn’t really know how I’m going to cope with playing tournaments all year without basically any break, because of the Olympics we didn’t have any break. I just took like four days off in the middle of the season, so hopefully it’s going to be enough for my motivation to last until the end of the season,” explained the 20-year-old.

Iga Swiatek© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

“But playing Finals, it’s something special, I never actually thought about that before. Usually I’m just focused on playing well at the Grand Slams, but right now when we’re actually heading to the end of the Race and we’re getting closer to this tournament, I’m just getting excited.

“On one side I would really like for me to qualify and it’s really exciting for me. But on the other side I know the most important thing is to just stay focused and keep doing the same thing I did during the whole season.

“I know that even if this tournament is not going to go well, I still have more chances to get more points. I’m just really happy that I still have power, that I don’t have any injury.”

The slow, high-bouncing hard courts at Indian Wells are expected to be perfectly-suited for Swiatek’s game, and the heavier balls used at the tournament this year will give her good control.

“The surface is really good for people that are playing topspin, and the kick serve is jumping really high. That’s probably the best hard court for clay-court players,” said Swiatek.

Iga Swiatek and Maria Sakkari in the corridor before entering the Philippe-Chatrier Court during Roland-Garros 2021© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Sakk ready to attack

Another player in the hunt for a WTA Finals ticket is Greece’s Maria Sakkari, whose semi-final appearances at Roland-Garros and the US Open over the past five months have helped her make her top-10 debut this week.

Sakkari is the first Greek woman to enter that elite ranking bracket and is next in line to join Ashleigh Barty, Aryna Sabalenka, Barbora Krejcikova and Karolina Pliskova in Guadalajara.

During her pre-tournament press conference at Indian Wells, the 26-year-old Sakkari made her intentions loud and clear about her targets for the rest of the season.

Maria Sakkari, Roland Garros 2021, first round© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

“I’m trying to achieve one of the biggest goals of my career for the first time, which is to qualify for the Finals. I’m more motivated than I was the first week of the year,” said Sakkari, who takes on Viktorija Golubic in her opener on Saturday.

“I know that with a couple of good results I’m probably going to make it. It doesn’t put me under any stress, it doesn’t make me feel any pressure but I know that I can and I see myself over there. So my motivation is really high.”

Smart decisions

Sakkari had never made it past the fourth round at a major prior to her semi-final result in Paris during the spring. She held match point against eventual champion Krejcikova before succumbing to the Czech in the last-four stage but walked away from Roland-Garros with the belief that this is where she belongs, in the final weekend at the Grand Slams.

Her US Open run cemented that belief and she credits smart scheduling, team communication and energy conservation for her career-best season.

“It was something where I proved to myself that you know, it’s time for you to make that extra step,” said Sakkari.

“I think we’ve been very clever with scheduling and rest. (My coach) Tom (Hill) has been giving me a lot of days off during this year, because probably he could see it more than I did that it’s going to be a long season, so he was prepared and ready for that.

“It’s very good that we have that communication of him letting me rest during the year and after the tournaments for like three or four days and not getting me back on court after a couple of days like maybe other players do.

“I would say that especially after Miami, it’s been a very successful year for me and I know that I can finish the year strong for sure.”