Practice partners turn quarter-final rivals

 - Dan Imhoff

Coaches of Swiatek and Sakkari discuss the upcoming last-eight showdown that pits their charges against one another

Maria Sakkari, Iga Swiatek, Roland-Garros 2021, practice©️ Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

There is a relaxed and jovial air about Court Philippe-Chatrier as Iga Swiatek and Maria Sakkari joke during a break from practice leading into their Roland-Garros campaigns.

The friendship and mutual respect between the pair is evident and shared between their respective coaches, Piotr Sierzputowski and Tom Hill.

On Thursday, the two camps will temporarily park that alliance when they return to Court Philippe-Chatrier. A women’s singles semi-final spot is on the line.

"It's never easy to play with one of the nicest girls on tour,” Swiatek said of the pair’s first showdown.

The Pole arrives having claimed 22 sets in succession – now 11 matches in a row – while Sakkari enters uncharted territory in her major quarter-final debut.

The Greek was equally forthcoming with the accolades.

“Iga is a lovely girl. She's an unbelievable player,” she said. “She's only 20 years old and she has already won a Slam.”

Sierzputowski, 28, and Hill, 26, are two of the youngest coaches of top women’s players on tour, proof age is no barrier to bringing out the best in their charges.

WTA Coach of the Year in 2020, Sierzputowski said the defending champion’s level had lifted this fortnight to even greater heights than her pressure-free run to the trophy last October.

He attributed much of this improvement since to the 20-year-old’s greater consistency.

“We're coming here to Roland-Garros and I feel like she has almost no pressure,” he said. “It's not about tournament pressure, it's about building from month to month that you are defending champion.

“I'm happy that she came here really prepared and has played better tennis than last year. I know that everybody is coming to the match right now like playing the best that they can because they know that they have Iga ahead of them, but still she's here, she's in the quarter-finals, which is a great result when you're getting through first week and getting to the next round.

“It's absolutely awesome so I feel like she's improved in a lot of stuff, not only on court but off court.”

Iga Swiatek, Piotr Sierzputowski, Roland Garros 2021, practice© Julien Crosnier/FFT

Unlike Swiatek, Sakkari’s ascent has been more of a slow-burner. Hill said he initially held concerns when the 25-year-old agreed a break was needed, following a second-round exit in Rome on the eve of Roland-Garros.

Sakkari’s clay-court season had yielded three early three-set losses, in stark contrast to Swiatek’s, which reaped the title in the Italian capital.

“The last couple of years with Covid and the bubbles and everything like that you have to be flexible, you have to adapt,” Hill said. “I just told her you need to go and take some rest. She wasn't enjoying being on the court.

“For me, I thought the only way we're going to have a successful tournament here is if she wants to be on the court. She took about a week off, maybe eight days, and then she called me saying she was ready to be back on the court.”

The downtime worked wonders. Sakkari eliminated Belgian 14th seed Elise Mertens and last year’s finalist Sofia Kenin back-to-back to reach the last eight in Paris.

Hill, a self-confessed tactical fanatic, was pleased at the growth he had witnessed translated to results at a major.

“I'd say the biggest thing I've noticed with Maria is more the understanding of her game, what shots she needs to hit, in what moment... just understanding what she does well,” he said. “Trying to focus more how she can play to her strengths, less what she can do to make her opponent feel uncomfortable.”

Eighth-seeded Swiatek was the type of player who thrived on routines.

Her coach admitted even a run to the semi-finals in doubles alongside Bethanie Mattek-Sands may have helped release some of the emotions involved in her campaign to defend her Grand Slam singles title.

“Iga needs structure. If she doesn't have structure she doesn't work well so that's something which is basic instincts for her,” Sierzputowski said. “This life is not easy for anybody. It's full of nice moments but it's full of work and bad weeks…

“Having structure, we try to keep Iga aside from all of it. So it's a little bit [like] a bubble – but it’s working.”