It has been a year of many firsts for Greek No. 1 Maria Sakkari, capped off by qualifying for the US Open main draw at the first Slam of her pro career. Last month René Denfeld sat down with the 20-year-old at the Tennis International in Darmstadt and talked to her about her season and the struggles of Greek tennis amidst the country’s financial crisis.
Tuesday marks the first time since the 2013 US Open that Greece will be represented in a major singles main draw. Maria Sakkari certainly did it the hard way, having been the underdog in all three of her qualification matches in Flushing Meadows last week.
Straight-set wins over the resurgent Anastasija Sevastova and No. 28 seed Petra Martic — along with a three-set battle against No. 4 seed An-Sophie Mestach — secured the youngster the ticket into the big leagues. She faces China’s Qiang Wang in her first round and will crack the Top 200 for the first time in her career — regardless of the outcome.
Fighting her way through qualifying against more experienced opponents is something that goes hand in hand with Sakkari’s style and on-court demeanor. A dogged competitor, Sakkari would best be described an aggressive baseliner, yet one more than happy to rally than merely to go for a reckless winner.
Around this time last month, the young Greek was philosophical following her second round loss at the $25,000 ITF tournament in Darmstadt, Germany and how she felt the first half of her year had gone.
“I think winning the $25,000 event in Maribor, making the semis in the $50,000 tournament [in Tunis] and almost qualifying for Bucharest were my best results of the season so far.
“I think I can do better, but in tennis it’s important not to get too impatient. It’s step by step.”
After a summer of hard work on the European ITF Circuit, the individual steps Sakkari has taken thus far have certainly paid off.
Tennis runs through Sakkiri’s veins. Her mother, Angeliki Kanellopoulou, was a pro herself, who made the quarterfinals at the 1984 Olympic Games and reached a career-high of No. 47. In 2013, Sakkari moved to Barcelona to hone her skills at the Portas Academy, and has been working with Germán Puentes ever since.
“I knew [Puentes] from many years ago. I used to practice with another coach who was friends with him. When I stopped working with the other coach, I contacted him. You obviously live where you practice and [for me], that’s Barcelona.
“It’s a great city, so all good!”
Sakkari might have moved to Barcelona but she has retained ties to her home country. Greece’s financial struggles over the past few years, particularly this summer, have been palpable across the board — even in tennis.
“The federation stopped helping us years ago when the crisis started,” she said. “They don’t have money to help us and I understand it. I’m not asking for anything from them. But now the situation was quite bad — and it is — since the elections five months ago.
“I hope Germany and the rest of the European Union continue to help us, because I would like to stay in the European Union. I mean I’m Greek, but I’m also Greek-European, and I think it’s the best for everyone if we find a solution that we can remain in Europe.”
For much of July, banks were closed, while cash withdrawals have been limited. For Sakkari, the struggle made traveling to tournaments even more stressful than usual.
“It was the first time they were closed in the last few years. We had to carry a lot of cash money with us and it was tough. We could not withdraw more than 50 € or 60 € per day and it was crazy. We had to take care of what we spend [and] how we spend it.
“We have an agency that helps us with the flights and we can pay with credit card and bank transfer — but for a lot of things, like hotels and everyday things, everyone still pays cash. Yes, there are credit cards but those things aren’t without limits, of course!”
Earlier this year, Sakkari played Fed Cup, and the 20-year-old has been a fixture on the team since 2012. A four-time veteran of 14 ties, she had the added bonus of working with a true mentor on the team: Eleni Daniilidou, who also happens to be the last player to represent Greece in a major singles event.
“Eleni is definitely a bit like a mentor,” Sakkari said. “It was important that she was with us this year. This year, we were more like a team; she knows what it takes to build a team so that we support each other. It was great this year.”
The youngster looks to pick up Daniilidou’s torch as she takes on Qiang Wang first on Court 6, hoping to go one step further in what has already been a breakout tournament for the young Greek.
What do you think of Sakkari’s rise through adversity? Sound off in the comments!