Sakkari happy to give karate the chop in French Open title pursuit

·3-min read
Power-packed: Greece's Maria Sakkari celebrates beating Belgium's Elise Mertens to make the last 16

Karate's loss was Greek tennis' gain when Maria Sakkari decided martial arts was not for her.

"When I was a child, I did swimming, running, ballet and even karate," Sakkari recalled.

"But I got kicked out of karate class on the first day I went because I was laughing so much. It all just seemed so funny to me.

"I only went because my brother Yannis went. He stayed but I didn't. There was no way I could have been a professional."

Fast forward to 2021 and the world number 18 is on the verge of reaching the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time.

The 25-year-old from Athens is following in the footsteps of her mother Angeliki who was a professional player on the WTA Tour, reaching the third round at the French Open in 1985 and 1987.

It took American legend Chris Evert to stop her mother, who played under her maiden name of Kanellopoulou, the first time in Paris.

In 1986, Angeliki reached a career high of 48 in the world but retired at the age of 25 to start a family.

"My mother didn't really want me to go into professional tennis. She thought it was too hard a life," said Sakkari who moved to Barcelona at age 18 to train and play.

Sakkari often calls upon her 'spirit of Sparta' on and off the court where a punishing fitness regime makes her a tough opponent.

In her third round win over Belgium's Elise Mertens she fired 53 winners to make the second week of a Slam for just the third time.

Tennis may struggle in Greece to peep out of the shadow of basketball and football.

- Inspired by Tsitsipas -

Sakkari also jostles for column inches with Stefanos Tsitsipas, the man widely tipped as a French Open champion should Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic falter.

Tsitsipas, the 22-year-old world number five, made his mark in the sport when he captured the prestigious ATP Finals title in 2019.

He also took Djokovic to five sets in the French Open semi-finals.

"For Greek people I think it's very nice to have a female and a male player competing in this level, and especially giving them a lot of joy," said Sakkari.

"I think they are proud of us. Stefanos inspires me a lot. It's very important for me to just be kind of like by his side in that journey."

Not that her journey is all work.

Having enjoyed a run to the Miami semi-finals earlier this year, a second round exit in Rome persuaded her to take a break on the Greek island of Spetses.

"After Rome I was sick of tennis for a few days. I just took a few days off, and I felt the love of the game again," she said.

"I messaged Tom (Hill, her coach) out of nowhere and I'm like, Tom, I'm ready to go back on court.

"I'm pretty positive that I'm going to do well from now on. He actually said, I'm excited that my player is coming back from retirement!"

On Monday, Sakkari faces fourth seeded Sofia Kenin of the United States for a place in the quarter-finals.

Kenin is a former Australian Open champion and runner-up to Iga Swiatek at Roland Garros in 2020.

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