What better way to prepare for next month's Australian Open than by defeating last year's finalists in successive matches? After edging past the runner-up in the third round of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open on Sunday, Maria Sakkari delivered a much more emphatic victory against the champion in Monday's quarter-final.
It certainly didn't appear to be heading that way when Sofia Kenin, the top seed this week, raced into a one-set lead. Sakkari was struggling for rhythm and range, while the serve that, quite literally, served her so well against Garbine Muguruza in the previous round had seemingly abandoned her.
Sakkari was audibly annoyed, berating herself on occasion between points as she searched for answers to explain her flat display. The answers came at 2-2 in the second set. Sakkari proceeded to win the next 10 games, blowing away the Australian Open champion 2-6, 6-2, 6-0.
"I was rushing a bit too much at the beginning of the match," the Greek ninth seed said. "I didn’t know what I needed to do when I realised what I was doing wasn’t working.
"I tried a different approach that actually worked. I tried to be more solid and make more balls. I was making way too many errors and was hitting too big when I didn’t have to. But I’m glad that once again I found a way to turn the match around."
One of the main differences was Sakkari's serve clicking into gear. It has become a real weapon for the world No 22 after investing plenty of time into making it more effective on the practice courts.
"It always helps when your [serve] percentage goes up, but it was not only my serve that wasn’t on," Sakkari, 25, said. "It was also my groundstrokes, I was missing a lot. I was angry so it was a [vicious] circle. Overall, I started to make more first serves and win some cheap points, stayed more solid from the baseline, so it was an overall improvement."
Few players have used the one-off tournament in Abu Dhabi more to their advantage than Sakkari. The WTA 500 event was created to give players some much-needed match time ahead of the Australian Open after the 2020 season was cut short by the pandemic. For a player whose best Grand Slam results is a pair of fourth-round appearances, Sakkari is doing her Melbourne Park chances no harm by building form and momentum at Zayed Sports City.
"Winning against these players this week helps a lot because there’s a Grand Slam coming and I feel like I’m preparing the best way for it," she said. "I’ve played players I’ve not faced before, like Garbine, which helps if we play again.
"It gives me a lot of confidence to start the season like this and I’m super happy to travel to Australia after some good matches."
After seeing off a couple of major champions, the challenges don't come any easier for Sakkari, who faces the WTA Tour's form player in Tuesday's semi-final.
Aryna Sabalenka, the world No 10 and fourth seed this week, is on a 13-match winning streak carried over from the two titles she won at the end of last season.
Sabalenka's latest win came in her quarter-final against Elena Rybakina as the Belarusian claimed a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory over the sixth seed following a high-quality contest.
"She’s having a great career so far and she’s still young," Sakkari said of her semi-final opponent. "She’s one of the toughest players to play against. I beat her once, so I can do it again – not to say that I definitely will. She’s really confident, so it’s going to be an interesting match."
Kenin's loss to Sakkari was followed later by defeat for Elina Svitolina, which means the tournament's top two seeds are both out.
The Ukrainian world No 6 played out a third set tie-break for the second match in as many days and, while she rode her luck in the third round against Ekaterina Alexandrova, there was no repeat against Veronika Kudermetova, who claimed a 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 win.
"It was a really tough match," Kudermetova, 23, said. "I tried to stay focused until the end and tried to fight and do everything for the win.
"It gives me a lot of confidence because this is a big tournament and I hope I can keep playing like this."
Kudermetova, the world No 46, will next take on Marta Kostyuk after the Ukrainian teenager reached her first WTA semi-final with a remarkable comeback win by defeating Spain's Sara Sorribes Tormo 0-6, 6-1, 6-3.