Beads of perspiration glazed over her face, arms and legs no matter how many times she dried off. There were quick debates and conversations at break time with her coach Tom Hill over tactics to win points and games. Maria Sakkari, the no.
30 on the WTA ranking was flustered during the first set by Japan's Mayo Hibi, a qualifier who's won 7 singles and 1 doubles title on the ITF Circuit. This was the first meeting for both and Hibi was more familiar with the Circuit level of play than the WTA tour style.
She looked like a pro at both and almost created an upset over Sakkari. The Greek felt the heat and stress on her to find the answers on court to win. Sakkari got shaken and was losing grip on this second-round match. She had won over Hibi 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 at the end, but during the opening set, she was panicking over the brilliant play of the Japanese.
"I know I didn't play great, but I came back and never stopped believing..." Sakkari discussed her performance. The belief became rattled when Hibi started executing great winning shots that she normally would have done.
Hibi was cool and confident. Sakkari was nervous and unsure. A consistent rally was ended by unforced errors on Sakkari's side of the net. Tom Hill, her coach came down and told her "you must be patient", for she wasn't getting control of her game.
But in the second set, she'd turned this around. It must have been on Maria Sakkari's mind that this same tournament last year she was in the final against Mihaela Buzamescu and came out a runner-up. She didn't want to go down in the second round.
"My serve was a big key for my game..." she said concerning her upheaval in winning the second and decider sets. After losing the opening set she began acting more aggressive. During the break, her coach ran down the court as he felt the positive turnaround.
"A really good job thee...you have to decide if you're willing to play ugly to win this match. The first set you made 30 unforced errors; which just shows that you are giving her cheap points...you have to wait for the right ball..."
Hill had given her the pep talk. "If it has to go 20 shots, it has to go 20 shots, that's part of playing ugly," he'd preached to Sakkari. The sermon had worked as she 'played ugly' and made pretty moves to win 6-4 in the second set.
But it took a lot of ingredients to win the third and it appears that Hibi was losing energy and control of her strategies. The young Greek woman led by 4-0 and could feel and see the finish line as Hibi started also making more unforced errors and not being able to reach Sakkari's powerful cross-court shots.
There was so much consistency to her game and much less to Hibi's that Sakkari pulled out the match winning the exhausting round. "You've got to stay calm in the mind," Hill had said. Somehow she picked up her game and got the victory giving a fist clench to her coach and others in the crowd to show joy, excitement and relief on finally winning to continue onto the quarterfinals of the Silicon Valley Classic.