Miami 2021: Maria Sakkari ends Naomi Osaka’s tilt at No1 ranking
No2 Osaka was on a streak of 23 wins, but Ash Barty will retain top spot
World No2 Naomi Osaka, current owner of two Major titles, and unbeaten in her last 23 matches, was the woman many believed should be the current No1, were it not for the freezing of the WTA rankings due to the coronavirus lockdown a year ago.
Her rival for the top spot, Ashleigh Barty, did not even play once the tour opened up last August, and finally left her native Australia for the first time in almost a year to defend her Miami Open title this week.
The relaunch of Barty onto the world stage also coincided with a relaxing of those rankings, and that opened the way for Osaka to reclaim the No1 ranking. If Barty, already into the semi-finals in Miami, did not make the final, Osaka could take her place if she won the title.
However, Osaka was to be denied not by Barty, though tennis fans relished the prospect of a showdown between the top two players come finals weekend. It would be the No23 seed Maria Sakkari who raced through the blustery weather and power-play of Osaka to reach the semis in just 69 minutes, 6-0, 6-4.
In fairness, although Osaka led their head-to-head 3-1, all their contests had been tough tussles. Three had gone to three sets, the fourth to a second-set tie-break. Here, though, Sakkari was on the front foot from the first game, breaking Osaka immediately.
And while the aggressive Sakkari piled up the winners, Osaka piled up the errors. The Greek went on to lose just eight points in the entire set—and only one point, a double fault, on her own serve.
The Japanese star’s first serve percentage rose marginally in the second set, but stayed stubbornly below 50 percent. She saved six break points in her first two service games of the second set, apparently righting the ship to force more extended rallies, and she looked to be on the right track with a break for a 3-0 lead.
However, the Greek dug in, and began to go for her shots again, breaking back in the seventh game, and holding for 4-4. Osaka wavered, seemed uncertain of her tactics, and Sakkari broke once more, going on to serve out her fourth top-five win in a row.
Osaka was somewhat at a loss for her level of play:
“What can I learn from the loss? I’m not really sure right now. I mean, I knew that, going into the match, she’s like a really big fighter, so I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. But I’m not really sure, because I felt like I haven’t been playing well this whole tournament, like I couldn’t find a groove, so mentally it’s really hard for me to play against really high-quality players with what I feel is low-quality tennis.”
As for Sakkari, she oozed confidence, and rightly so:
“I’m so excited, I’m super happy. I have no words…
“[Smiling] With all respect, I’m not going to reveal the strategy, not even a little bit. There is a lot of respect from my side to her side. She’s a great champion, and I think what she has done the last three years is unreal.
“I was super positive, and I believed in myself before entering the match. And I knew that I can do it, because I already did it once.”
The Greek, who will now rise at least to her former career best of No20—further with another win—will next play either Bianca Andreescu or the unseeded Sara Sorribes Tormo in the semi-finals.