April 24, 2024

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Maria Sakkari takes on Coco Gauff on a strange and wild night in the desert

Maria Sakkari takes on Coco Gauff on a strange and wild night in the desert

There are tennis matches that play out like chess, full of attacks and feints, with only the slightest strategic adjustments.

Then there are matches like Friday night's semifinal between Coco Gauff and Maria Sakkari at the BNP Paribas Open, an intense, spirited battle between two of the best athletes in this or any sport.

This precise game of tennis was not just a test of survival of the fittest.

On a strange, cold, rainy night in the desert, the nearly three-hour match took five and a half hours to complete. There were two rain delays at Indian Wells, the second lasting nearly 90 minutes and requiring leaf blowers, mops and dozens of towels to make the field playable.

And thank the tennis gods, because what happened next was high drama, as Sakkari somehow prevailed 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2, when it looked like it would all slip away.

First, Sakkari and Goff hit, ran and measured each other in the first seven games before the first raindrops stopped play.

There was the second act, before and after the first rain, when Gauff struggled with her serve and control of her forehand, and even required medical attention for apparent dizziness, allowing Sakkari to take the first set, 6-4, and the lot. Of momentum. Then more rain, and when it was over, Jove was even more lost, her frustration mounting with the grunts and thumps of her racket. This was all going to be over pretty soon, wasn't it?

Late Thursday night, after Sakkari bested Emma Navarro, the 22-year-old American, in another three-hour battle, she talked about how much she enjoyed playing Joffe.

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“When you play Coco, you have to accept that she will get two or three more balls than everyone else,” Sakkari said. “It's nice to have girls who are athletic and fit. Then you feel, 'OK, it's time to challenge myself and play against someone who is as fit as me.'

It's a level of fitness that allowed the third act, a furious final comeback from one set, 5-2, and a break point deficit, that would have galvanized many players. Instead, Goff decided to come out swinging to channel all of the night's frustration into hitting a mysterious yellow ball.

I broke it down the line and across the field. She's been hitting forehands, backhands and serves, changing her speed when she needs to stretch a point, but for the most part this has become just the hit-and-run-and-dash contest that Sakkari said it would be. Gauff won six of the next seven games, including the tiebreak, saving a string of match points with Sakkari's serve attempt.

no. They went to the third group.

There was a time, maybe even just a month ago, when Sakkari would have ruined this match, collapsing in the face of his home crowd trying to get his favorite daughter back into the match and crossing the goal line, unable to get past it after being so close and shorthanded. That was before she started working with Ben Crowe, the mentality expert behind Ash Barty's success who tries to make every athlete he works with remember they are playing a game. When Sakkari kicks a volley in a tense moment, as if trying to shoot it past a goalkeeper, or jumps and lets a ball pass through her legs, that is Crowe's handiwork.

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She has a new coach at this tournament too, in David Witt, who worked for years with Venus Williams and then took Jessica Pegula from outside the top 100 to No. 3 in the world. He hasn't done much yet, she said. It's early days. But she said it makes her laugh. a lot.

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Ultimately, there is no way to know what brought Sakkari back from losing match points and having almost complete control of the match, and from being down a break point in the final set with Gauff leading.

“You could lose your head,” she said.

But she didn't do that. She ran harder and lasted one shot longer with just enough points until the final ball from Gough sailed wide.

“Amazing night,” she said.

Sakkari will now face world number one Iga Swiatek in the final on Sunday. Swiatek did what she had been doing all tournament, tearing down her opponents.

Friday's victim was Marta Kostyuk from Ukraine, one of the most prominent players last month. Kostyuk can win with power or turnover, by fighting from the backcourt, getting forward and forcing points to their right end.

The problem is that your women are better and more stable than any woman on the face of the earth. She won 6-2, 6-1 in just over an hour.

“I have all the positive vibes,” she said when she finished.

As she should.

Her matches here this year were more like corporal punishment than athleticism. I played nine full sets. In six of them, her opponents failed to win more than Two matches. Caroline Wozniacki retired due to injury in the quarterfinals. Kostyuk needed medical treatment on her foot and also nearly retired on Friday.

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Swiatek is not obsessed with cities, unlike Paris, where she has won the French Open three times. They thrive in nature, in tournaments held away from the hustle and bustle.

The Coachella Valley is perfect for it, with high, snow-capped desert mountains rising to the horizon, and a broad horizon in every direction. Sakkari, who lost to Swiatek in the final two years ago, likes the atmosphere here too, especially after Friday night.

(Top image: Robert Prange/Getty Images)