“They gave me strength” – how Sakkari used haters for fuel as she went from distraught to dominant after US Open disappointment

After notching her biggest career title, Maria Sakkari talks about what kept her going through dark times and how the haters added fuel to her fire.

Maria Sakkari, Guadalajara 2023 Maria Sakkari, Guadalajara 2023 – © Refugio Ruiz/AP/SIPA

The images were hard to watch. After her third consecutive first-round loss at the majors last month in New York, Maria Sakkari broke down in tears as she contemplated what had gone wrong, and what her future might hold.

The 28-year-old Greek, one of the most dedicated and hardest-working women (also well-liked) in the sport, clearly needed a change in perspective, and maybe a prolonged break from the competition that was draining her.

“I just feel like my level was and has been poor and I have to do something about it. It’s not a lack of effort, for sure,” she said in a teary press conference that would be written about ad nauseam by the tennis press. “It’s very uncertain, I don’t know what I am going to do, whether I am going to take a break or not.”

Maria Sakkari, 2023

Fast forward a few weeks, and Sakkari has put that harrowing moment in the rearview mirror. The newly crowned 1000-level champion, fresh off her biggest career title in Guadalajara, where she defeated Caroline Dolehide to earn her first title in four and a half years, talked about how she found a way to put her doubts behind her as she earned a long overdue moment of magic in Mexico.

“Because of that picture that went out to the press, a lot of players and people really felt for me,” Sakkari told WTA Insider, referring to her jarring press conference in Flushing Meadows. “I cannot describe in words the amount of love and support I got. I believe that there are good people out there, and when they see someone who works hard, of course they want things to go well for other nice people.”

Sakkari says that she had to look in the mirror and change her perspective after a difficult time. She took a page from teenager Coco Gauff’s playbook and started to appreciate herself more. Yes, these were difficult times, but she looked around and recognised how lucky she was to be playing the sport she loved, with her family and friends and coach always having her back.

“I really liked what Coco [Gauff] said at the US Open, about how other people have bigger problems than we have when we lose a tennis match, and she’s spot on,” she told WTA Insider. “I kept thinking about that, and that gave me strength.

“I’m just very proud of myself. Being like that at the US Open, wanting to take a break, and then finding the joy again during the week. It’s a big title, my biggest title, it means so much.”

Sakkari said it again and again while in Guadalajara. She needed to – and was – reconnecting with her love for the sport, and that was more important than the winning and losing.

“I only had one goal this week: Just to be happy,” she said. “If you watched a couple of my matches, you saw me smiling more than usual on the court. That was my goal. I was just very happy that I could do it because that was the key for me to get myself back and feel good on the court and feel happy and appreciate what I do.

Message to the haters

Sakkari’s recent rise has an another parallel to Gauff as well. The American referenced the haters, and thanked them for giving her fuel to prove them wrong after her US Open title run. Sakkari, in her interview with WTA Insider, admitted that she too let the critics put gasoline on her fire.

“We live in 2023,” she said. “Social media is a part of our everyday life. You cannot avoid it. Coco said she knows the user names. I know them, too. I know the person with a YouTube channel who posts all my semifinal losses, all my final losses. I’m aware.

“The satisfaction now, I cannot describe it. When you prove all these people wrong, it’s fuel. For me, it worked as fuel.”

Though Sakkari may have taken her share of lumps in 2023, the Greek never stopped believing that she has what it takes to do great things in the sport.

Now she stands alone as the only Greek woman to have ever claimed a WTA1000-level title, and the future looks bright one again.

“I knew it was going to come, I didn’t know when,” she said. “Thank you to them. They gave me strength.”

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