Sakkari: I haven't reached my level yet

 - Dan Imhoff

World No.18 finds no shortage of inspiration in pursuit of historic firsts for Greece

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

Often all it takes is felling one big name, a companion’s breakout or a predecessor’s path, to inspire.

In Maria Sakkari’s case, she considers herself blessed to have all of the above to draw on.

Signature hair-bun pulled up tight, the powerful Greek 17th seed rolled through to the third round at Roland-Garros for the second straight year on Thursday.

The scoreline read 6-2, 6-3 over 92nd-ranked Jasmine Paolini, but the pumped-up roars of self-encouragement pointed to more at stake.

There is a chance now to close on her third last-16 showing from her past four majors and to erase memories of a surprise defeat to one of Paolini’s countrywomen, Martina Trevisan, in the third round seven months ago.

“I mean, Roland-Garros is one of my favourite tournaments, so I'm really glad, and I hope I can do much better these weeks,” Sakkari said on Thursday.

“I feel like I haven't reached my level yet, my good level, but I think I'm playing good solid clay-court tennis. I think I served really well today, very clever, and very good choices on my serve.”

The 25-year-old’s “good level” is within reach. Sakkari stood toe-to-toe with her friend, defending women’s champion Iga Swiatek, in a practice session in Paris this week.

While the Greek was left to rue missed opportunities last September, she watched on in awe as the 19-year-old swept all before her.

“I mean, Iga, she's a lot younger than me – she's five years younger than me – but what she achieved last year is unreal,” Sakkari said. “I'm very happy for her because she's a lovely girl and a very good player, of course. I always have good practices with her.

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

“I know that I'm not far away from that, but still a long way to go. Of course I cannot think about that from the third round, but I know that my game is there, especially when I bring up something extra, it really helps and really gives me the confidence I need to make the step.”

That big upset came last August against Serena Williams at the Western and Southern Open in New York. Then another on hard courts, this time snapping Naomi Osaka’s 23-match winning streak in Miami in April.  

That semi-final run in Florida launched Sakkari into the top 20, following consecutive last-four appearances in Abu Dhabi and at the Grampians Trophy in Melbourne to open her season.

Belgian 14th seed Elise Mertens now stands between her and a maiden fourth round in Paris. It’s a challenge compounded by facing an opponent for which she has enormous respect.

Elise Mertens, Roland-Garros 2021 second round© Philippe Montigny/FFT

“She's one of my oldest friends on the tour,” Sakkari said. “We've known each other since a very young age.

“We've played each other a lot of times, especially on the ITF Tour. She's an unbelievable player and very respectful. She has a very difficult game, and it's going to be a battle for sure.”

While there are few in Greek tennis ranks to have paved the way, Sakkari has found inspiration from family – mum Angeliki Kanellopoulou, a former world No.43 – from a current compatriot in Stefanos Tsitsipas and from a predecessor beyond her mother, Greece’s greatest women’s player, former world No.14 Eleni Daniilidou.

“I admire her [Mum] for what she achieved and for the person she is and what she has given me and my siblings all these years – not only her but of course both of my parents,” Sakkari said in Miami before being pressed on Daniilidou’s influence.

“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. We get along really well, and she was a great player and great champion.”

Men’s world No.5 Tsitsipas has already set Greek tennis fortunes soaring, and the two – whose “families are very close” – are on an upward trajectory.

Taking that "good level" to great is within reach for both.