Sakkari Marches Into D.C. Final With A Flourish, Beats Top-Seeded Pegula

Maria Sakkari (photo: Dustin Satloff/Mubadala Citi DC Open)

WASHINGTON, August 6, 2023 (by Michael Dickens)

Maria Sakkari is quietly but efficiently making a statement in the Mubadala Citi DC Open tournament this week. The first Greek woman in the 54-year history of the Washington, D.C. event, the ninth-ranked Sakkari has advanced all the way to Sunday’s championship match by winning three matches in 28 hours.

On Saturday afternoon at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park, the fourth-seeded Sakkari knocked off top seed and 2019 tournament champion Jessica Pegula of the United States, 6-3, 4-6, 6-2, in two hours, three minutes before a sold-out crowd of 7,500 that filled Stadium Court on a sunny afternoon in the nation’s capital city.

Later, No. 3 seed Coco Gauff eliminated defending champion Liudmila Samsonova, 6-3, 6-3, in one-hour, 42-minutes, which ensures there will be a new champion crowned in this WTA 500-series event. It stopped the Russian’s eight-match Washington winning streak.

After jumping out to a quick start in the opening set, Sakkari had to collect herself after Pegula rallied from a set and 1-4 down to win five games in a row to level the semifinal match at a set apiece. However, Sakkari saved some of best tennis for the final set and broke Pegula in each of the World No. 4’s last two service games. She closed out the win with her 36th winner of the match, a backhand beauty that culminated a 10-shot rally to eliminate the American No. 1 and 2019 D.C. champion.

Now, Sakkari, 28, soldiers on, into her eighth career singles final, and is a victory away from winning her second WTA Tour title. She also owns a 4-1 record against Gauff, the only blemish coming on clay in Rome in 2021.

“Feeling good,” Sakkari said at the start of her post-match press conference. “I mean, it was a very difficult match, obviously, as expected. I don’t think we had easy matches with each other. So, I’m just very happy, you know, just to be in the final.”

Sakkari admits she didn’t expect to do well this week in Washington. Just the opposite has happened.  “I was playing really good back home, but I didn’t expect to make the final here,” she said. “Actually, I had a feeling that this tournament is going to be good for me, but at the same time, I was like, ‘OK, let’s see how it goes.’ But, yeah, it’s paying off. I’m playing good tennis again. … I’m just, you know, super excited. I’m going to enjoy myself tomorrow as well.”

Sakkari, who played both her round of 16 and quarterfinal matches on Friday due to Thursday evening’s rain out – posting wins over 88th-ranked qualifier Leylah Fernandez of Canada, then World No. 16 and seventh seed Madison Keys of the United States – lost all four of her finals in 2022 and hasn’t lifted a trophy since winning her inaugural WTA crown in Morocco in 2019.

Pegula said Sakkari played very good right from the start of the match. “She was playing so aggressively and really not making a lot of errors, playing good defense,” the World No. 4 expressed. “I felt like she was doing everything well, serving well, returning well. To me, she was playing lights out there for a while.

“Too good today from her. I think she just honestly played a really, really good match.”

Meanwhile, the World No. 7 Gauff has been enjoying herself all week in D.C. She has strung together three impressive victories over young American Hailey Baptiste, and Top-20 foes Belinda Bencic of Switzerland (ranked 16th) and Samsonova (ranked 18th), to reach her second WTA singles final of the season and first since January. Both have come on hard courts. Gauff hasn’t dropped a set and has lost just 14 games in her three wins, and her triumph over Samsonova represents her 20th career win over a Top-20 player.

“I’m super happy with how I played today,” Gauff said in her post-match news conference. “Playing [the] defending champion is never easy. [Liudmila] is a player who goes really hard on every ball.

Gauff’s positive aggression produced eight aces and 20 winners. She did not drop her serve in nine service games, saving five of five break points. Meanwhile, Samsonova posted 24 winners but also committed 50 unforced errors, which was her undoing.

“I had to accept that a lot of points are going to be off unforced errors,” Gauff said. “Sometimes, as a player, it doesn’t make you feel great when you’re winning off unforced errors, but also when you’re playing someone who is so aggressive and dictates as her, you have to accept that.”

Now, Gauff has moved to within one victory from her fourth WTA Tour singles title. At 19, she’s the first teenager to reach the Washington title match.

“I did say at the beginning of this year that I wanted to do better in these [WTA] 500 and 1000-level tournaments,” Gauff said. “I lost the semis in Dubai and semis in Berlin, so I’m happy to finally get through to the final.”

Siegemund and Zvonareva win women’s doubles title

In a final between two unseeded teams, Laura Siegemund of Germany and Russia’s Vera Zvonareva won the Mubadala Citi DC Open women’s doubles title Saturday afternoon.

Siegemund (ranked 31st) and Zvonareva (59th) defeated Alexa Guarachi Mathison of Chile and Monica Niculescu of Romania, 6-4, 6-4, in one hour and 25 minutes on Stadium Court. It was their fourth title together as a team, including the 2020 US Open, and the second this season for Siegemund.

The winners won 69 percent of their service points, hit 21 winners to 16 unforced errors, converted three break points and outpointed their opponents 59-48.

Siegemund and Zvonareva, who were semifinalists in April at Charleston on clay and quarterfinalists at last month’s Wimbledon Championships on grass and improved to 10-6 as a team this season, will split $40,100 in prize money and each will receive 470 WTA Rankings points.

Around the Mubadala Citi DC Open

On Friday afternoon, climate protestors briefly interrupted the Taylor FritzAndy Murray third-round match on Stadium Court, the tournament’s largest venue. Action was delayed for several minutes during the first set of Fritz’s 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-4 win when an undetermined number of jumbo-sized tennis balls were tossed onto the court.

Fritz said in his post-match news conference that he found the whole incident “annoying.”

“I get they’re protesting, but there’s just got to be a better way to do it,” said the World No.  9 and top-seeded Fritz. “I don’t understand how people are going to get behind a cause when you’re ruining everyone else’s good time. Like, it doesn’t really make sense to me. … It’s annoying, obviously, when they do it. It’s ruining everyone’s time. Everyone wants to watch the tennis. … I think, you know, they’re supporting a good cause, but the way they’re doing it, who’s going to want to listen when they’re just annoying everybody?”

According to the Associated Press, about a dozen people were asked to leave the tournament and did so without further incident.

Looking ahead to Championship Sunday

By the numbers

The last American man to win the Washington, D.C. title was Andy Roddick in 2007.

“Quotable …”

“It’s great, it’s unbelievable. I never felt like this playing here. Everyone was taking me in unbelievable. As soon as I get on-site, everyone is screaming, yelling. I have never had this much love playing here ever. Every time I played, it packed. People were going crazy. Even there, I felt like a Grand Slam match.”

– No. 2 seed Frances Tiafoe, who grew up in neighboring Maryland, on the feeling of playing in his home tournament this week. On Friday night, Tiafoe lost to No. 9 seed Dan Evans of Great Britain in the quarterfinal round.