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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, June 9, 2021

 
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No. 17-seeded Maria Sakkari snapped Iga Swiatek's 11-match Roland Garros winning streak with a stirring 6-4, 6-4 sweep for her first Slam semifinal appearance.

Photo credit: Roland Garros Facebook

Staring down the shadow cast by the reigning Roland Garros champion, Maria Sakkari de-stressed getting her kicks by running in place between points.

Even when she wasn't playing points, an energized Sakkari looked like a woman going places.

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A superb Sakkari gave Iga Swiatek the boot in a rousing 6-4, 6-4 victory snapping the defending champion's 11-match Roland Garros winning streak to storm into her first Grand Slam semifinal in Paris.

Sakkari met the moment of her first major quarterfinal with a dynamic performance making history as the first Greek woman to advance to a Grand Slam semifinal.

"I don't want to get too excited because I don't have a day off tomorrow. I still have to play, stay focused," Sakkari said. "But it's a big achievement, for sure. I'm enjoying, as I said on court, my tennis and myself. I have people around me telling it was going to come. You know, they were right.

"Maybe I was the one who was telling them, I was impatient, telling them, When and when and when? It actually came this week, so I'm happy about it."




This wildly unpredictable Roland Garros took another stunning turn as the 17th-seeded Sakkari joins her good friend and Hopman Cup teammate Stefanos Tsitsipas, who knocked off world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev last night, as the second Greek singles player to reach the French Open final four. 

If you picked a semifinal slate featuring four first-time semifinalists—Sakkari vs. Barbora Krejickova and 85th-ranked Tamara Zidansek against 31st-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova—before this Roland Garros began, then you're either a total tennis savant, the luckiest person on the planet or probably both. Sakkari's sweep ensures there will be a maiden major champion in the Roland Garros women's field for the sixth straight year.

Despite losing the first two games, Sakkari's strong sense of self-belief never wavered.

Clad in black, Sakkari came out with a clear-cut game plan: apply her tremendous speed to stretch the court, combat Swiatek's twisting topspin forehand with her own heavy topspin forehand strikes  and serve almost exclusively to the champion's forehand, which is the Pole's most dangerous wing, but also requires more time to generate her backswing compared to her more compact backhand.

"Well, obviously I didn't play my best tennis. That's for sure," Swiatek said. "But Maria did a good job with playing at my forehand, which wasn't working pretty well today. It's good for her that she saw that. She picked a good tactics, for sure.

"I struggled with picking the right place where to play. I couldn't play some shots that usually give me points. Yeah, my balls weren't, like, really deep and heavy. Basically that's my biggest weapon, so it was really hard to play without that."

Committing completely to that game plan she devised with coach Tom Hill, Sakkari delivered a master class.

"Every player has a way of playing, way of just executing the game plan," Sakkari said. "I feel like I have a heavy forehand, a good forehand on the clay. I have to play with it.

"I served really well today. That's all I can say, yeah."

Launching herself up and out on serve, the 5'8" Greek smacked five aces, won 29 of 35 first-serve points and saved five of six break points. Even when Swiatek left the court down 0-2 in the second set for a near 10-minute medical time-out, Sakkari did not stumble. 

When play resumed, Sakkari slammed down successive love holds and rolled through 16 of the last 19 points played on her serve scoring her biggest career victory. 

Streak-buster Sakkari snapped Swiatek's streak of 22 straight sets three months after she snapped Naomi Osaka's 23-match winning streak sweeping a stunning 6-0, 6-4 victory to soar into her first Miami Open semifinal—and hand Osaka her first loss in nearly 14 months.

The eighth-seeded Swiatek cruised through to her second major quarterfinal without dropping a set and has partnered Bethanie Mattek-Sands to reach the doubles semifinal.

Playing with taping wrapping her thigh, you have to wonder if the heavy match workload contributed to Swiatek's struggles.  

Riding an 10-match clay-court winning streak that saw her capture her third title in Rome last month, Swiatek had dropped just 20 games, fewest of any quarterfinalist, in reaching the last eight for the second straight year.

Swiatek drew first blood breaking for 2-0 and going up 30-15 in the third game before Sakkari started to find her range and rhythm breaking back in that third game.

Staffers helped attend to a fan in apparent health distress in the upper deck causing a brief delay in play. Swiatek got back to business branding a love hold for 4-3.

Serving with new balls, Sakkari sealed a love hold to level. The Greek stepped inside the baseline and banged a forehand winner for double-break point in the ninth game.

Hitting off her back foot, Swiatek sprayed a wide forehand as Sakkari scored her second break for 5-4.

Serving for the set, Sakkari continued targeting the Swiatek forehand sliding her second ace out wide for a set point. Swiatek coaxed an error to save it. Sakkari stung the sideline with another wide serve winner for a second set point.




In a side-to-side exchange that showcased the athleticism of both women, Sakkari saw her opportunity and seized it, blasting her backhand down the line and hurling a clenched fist to celebrate a one set lead.

Sakkari snapped Swiatek's French Open set streak at 22, but could she hold her nerve to reach her first major semifinal?

The woman in black continued her roll into the second set. Sakkari's speed around the court and her ability to answer Swiatek's topspin forehand with heavy topspin of her own were on display as she went toe-to-toe in a forehand exchange drawing an errant forehand to start the second set with a break.

The 17th-seeded Sakkari backed up the break holding at 15 for a 2-0 lead.

Mired in a free fall that saw her drop eight of the prior 10 games, Swiatek called for the trainer and left the court for several minutes for an injury time-out.

When Swiatek returned so did her forehand as she cracked a strike down the line to get on the scoreboard in the second set.

Tennis Express

The break did not stall Sakkari's serve flow as she swept through her second love hold for 3-1. Teetering on the edge of going down a double break, Swiatek was thumping her forehand with more vigor as she saved two break points holding in the fifth game.

Supremely fit, fierce and focused, Sakkari played near flawless tennis and did not flinch at closing time.

Serving for the biggest win of her life, Sakkari shoveled a subtle forehand drop shot to start the game, slashed her fifth ace for 30-0 and wrong-footed the champion with a forehand winner for triple match point.

The eighth-seeded Swiatek wasn't done yet crunching consecutive forehands to erase two match points.

By then, Swiatek had to expect the second serve was coming to her forehand.




It didn't matter whether she knew it was coming.

On her third match point, Sakkari spun a second serve down the middle then dropped to a squat and closed her eyes absorbing a joyous, historic moment. 

 

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