WTA San Jose: Spartan spirit brings Maria Sakkari to her first final

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WTA San Jose: Spartan spirit brings Maria Sakkari to her first final

At San Jose State University, home of the Spartans, Maria Sakkari, whose dad is from Sparta, appropriately became the first player from Greece to make a WTA final since Eleni Daniilidou at 2008 Hobart. Down a set and a double break, Maria Sakkari completed a dramatic turnaround to defeat Danielle Collins 3-6, 7-5, 6-2 and book a spot in her first WTA final at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic.

She will face No.5 seed Mihaela Buzarnescu who completed her 34th win of the season to come through to her third career final, the first at Premier-level, beating No.4 seed Elise Mertens 4-6 6-3 6-1 for the first time after three consecutive defeats, in a rematch of the Hobart International final in January.

Coming into her semifinal match, Mertens had only been broken twice so far but Buzarnescu immediately recovered from a break back in the opener. Mertens, bidding to overtake Venus Williams and move to a career-high of No.14, broke once more after a marathon game at 3-2 to take and dodged break back points from Buzarnescu to charge ahead to take the opening set.

Seeded No.5 this week, for the third time at Premier level or above (also No.15 at Charleston, No.31 at Roland Garros and No.28 Wimbledon), Buzarnescu quickly gained a 4-1 lead while Mertens saw her level drop, and forced the match to a decider, the 19th she has played this season, the most at WTA level so far.

Mertens called the trainer for a right forearm injury and lost the last six games in a row. Contesting a Bay Area event for the first time in her career, having never previously played the Mubadala Silicon Valley, Buzarnescu completed her fifth Top 20 win after she had beaten No.6 Ostapenko (2018 Doha), No.4 Svitolina (2018 Roland Garros), No.5 Svitolina (2018 Birmingham) and No.20 Bertens (2018 Eastbourne).

Mihaela Buzarnescu is now projected to move to No.21 with a runner-up finish and No.20 by lifting the title while Sakkari could reach the Top 35 and climb to the Top 30 for the first time with the title. The Greek had won 66.7% of her return games this week before the semifinals – her season average is 32.1% - breaking serve 18 times in three matches, included her fifth career Top 20 win against two-time champion Venus Williams.

But Collins, who ensured that for an eighth straight year the United States had at least one semifinal representative at the tournament, had another plan for the day. A lone break of serve made the difference for Collins in the first set as she dictated play with her powerful backhands.

The former NCAA standout continued on a tear in the second, as she clinched four games in a row to move 4-1 up. “I think at 4-1 in the second she started really stepping up to the baseline and putting her foot on the gas,” Collins explained afterwards, according to WTAtennis.com.

“It helped her get back in her rhythm and playing more aggressive. It threw me off a little bit. She played some really great tennis, so kudos to her.” Sakkari credited her coach Tom Hill for his on-court coaching that made her pass from being negative to positive.

“Just enjoy this.” he said her. “How can I enjoy myself when I’m playing like this?” she asked. Sakkari lost three games for the rest of the match. “I think it’s part of my character and the way I grew up playing - I like drama,” the Greek player said after the victory.

“When things get tighter, I’m more used to it. It’s in my character, Spartan.” Sakkari, arrived at Bay Arena event on a streak of four consecutive defeats, became the first finalist ranked outside the Top 30 in the tournament since No.120 Vandeweghe in 2012.