Sakkari soars at home away from home

  • Reem Abulleil

Few non-Aussies at Melbourne Park receive as much support from the crowd as Maria Sakkari does every time she steps on court.

The Greek fans start chanting well before her matches begin, and continue cheering well after she’s done.

They’ve been attending her clashes ever since she made her Australian Open debut in 2016 and she even recognises some of them, having seen them courtside so many times throughout the years.

“I love them, they’re the best,” Sakkari, who plays Madison Keys in the third round on Friday, said this week.  

“It’s always for me very special to come back here because it’s like playing at home for me. Because unfortunately we don’t have a tournament yet in Greece, hopefully soon. So I really love them and they really make me play better and feel better on court. I really have only positive things to say about them.”

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Sakkari has made the third round three times in her past four AO visits

Melbourne is home to the largest Greek community outside Greece, and with Sakkari, and her compatriot Stefanos Tsitsipas, now rising through the ranks and becoming household names on their respective tours, their dedicated fans have been flocking to the Australian Open in scores, bringing a football-like energy to the stadiums of Melbourne Park.

“I could hear it and I was like, ‘This is insane’,” Sakkari’s coach Tom Hill, tells ausopen.com.

“I said to our physio, Daniel [Pohl]; this is his first season with us, and I said, ‘Be ready, it’s going to be loud’. And he’s like, ‘Is that for our court?’ And you could just hear it, ‘Mariaaaa Sakkariii’.

“I love it. I know Maria responds well to it, so actually it’s great.

“For every positive there is also a negative. It’s pressure for sure. Maria has to manage it. We have many conversations about how to handle it, how to use it to her advantage. Because if not, you can freeze.

“It has to be natural. I tell her, ‘Use the fans when you feel you need the help, if not, just focus on your game, they will do their part to carry you along’. It’s finding the right balance.

“I also say, ‘Look, your opponent is going to feel this heavy pressure because every point you win, every error they make, they’re going to be supporting you’.”

Seeded 22 this fortnight, Sakkari has certainly thrived on the crowd support and laughs when asked if it’s a goal for her to get a souvlaki named after her, to rival the ‘Tsitsipas souvlaki’ that was created by famous local Greek restaurant Stalactites last year, in honour of his run to the semifinals.

“Maybe another dish, maybe we leave that for Stefanos, and we say, ‘Sakkari moussaka’ or something,” she said with a chuckle.

A journalist suggested the term, ‘Moussakkari’, much to the delight of the 24-year-old Greek, who promised him royalties if a moussaka dish with that name ever came to be.

‘I really love them and they really make me play better and feel better on court’
Maria Sakkari on her legion of fans in Melbourne

Sakkari is looking to advance past the third round at a Grand Slam for the first time in her career, and she says she’s coming off of her best-ever preseason training block.

The Athens-native has surrounded herself by a young team that includes fellow 24-year-olds Hill and Pohl.

“We joke with Maria, we’re like, you have to be 25-and-under to join this team, it’s a prerequisite,” says Hill with a chuckle.

“I think I’m the youngest coach on tour, especially at kind of the highest level, and I like it.”

Sakkari has complete faith in Hill, who has now been part of her camp for almost two years.

“We get along really well and we spend a lot of time together, sometimes it’s a bit tough for both of us, because we see each other’s face every day. But the most important thing is that we believe in each other, he believes I can be the best out there and I believe that with him I can be the best,” she says.  

“There is a lot of respect from both sides and belief from both. So I think that’s the key. Of course every partnership has ups and downs, but until now, we are great and we’re super happy both of us. I think it’s going to last long.”

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Sakkari plays Keys on Friday for a place in the last 16

Hill believes Sakkari’s confidence is growing day by day, and a breakthrough could be just around the corner. He considers her “Spartan strength” as one of her greatest assets.

“Maria has always worked hard. She will go above and beyond, hours just practicing and practicing, relentless, and I love that. But I would say the mental side was massive this offseason,” says Hill, who played college tennis at Pepperdine University before taking up a career in coaching.   

“One in the way of training smart, training specific, training with a purpose, and the other was just learning from the past experiences. Because last year was her best year, we were able to review it, what worked, what didn’t work … all of these things made her grow.”

Hill believes being the same age as his player has way more advantages than disadvantages.

“We get each other, we’re going through life at the same speed. Because obviously in tennis there are so many things on the court we’re working on, but there’s a whole separate life off the court and some people forget that as a coach, you don’t just coach the tennis, you’re also coaching the life,” he adds. 

“And there are experiences that I go through, that she’s going through, that we can talk about and I think – I joke about it, but this whole millennial thing, we’re in it together.”