Naomi Osaka, the Australian and US Open champion who has not lost a match since February 2020, swallowed the bitter pill of defeat when Maria Sakkari beat her in straight sets at the Miami Open presented by Itaú on Wednesday, bringing an end to the Japanese’s 23-match winning run.
I felt like I was getting there. I felt that even though it wasn't like pretty tennis—like, I like to try to play perfectly, but, you know, that doesn't really happen most of the time, so I thought even though it wasn't pretty tennis, I was trying to find a way to win the set. Naomi Osaka
Sakkari stopped the World No 2 in her tracks, 6-0 6-4, needing only 69 minutes to secure her spot in the semi-finals where the Greek will meet Canada’s Bianca Andreescu.
Osaka’s last loss was to Sara Sorribes Tormo, 6-0 6-3, back in last February’s Billie Jean King Cup qualifiers, and, ironically, the Spaniard also lost on Wednesday in the quarter-finals to the Canadian, 6-4 3-6 6-3.
After failing to win a game in the opening set, Osaka, the No 2 seed in Miami, took a 3-0 lead in the second, but Sakkari, seeded 23, recovered her form to take 6 of the next 7 games on her way to an emphatic victory.
Sakkari’s ability to apply pressure to Osaka’s second serve with her returns was the key to the match.
These penetrated the Japanese defence and were frequently untouchable, while Sakkari also drew the former World No 1 into uncomfortably long rallies.
In all, Sakkari delivered an impeccable performance, striking 22 winners when Osaka committed 23 unforced errors and could only find 5 winners.
“I don’t think tennis-wise it was like the best tennis I have ever played in my life,” said Sakkari. “I think I executed our strategy with Tom [Hill, her coach] really well.
“I just did what I had to do. I’m not gonna tell you what. What we discussed before the match, I just did it most of the match, except maybe a couple of games where things didn’t go right.”
The Greek, who had escaped 6 match points against American Jessica Pegula in the previous round, has spoken about working on aggressive tactics while rediscovering her on-court identity in Miami.
Her improvement is illustrated in her recent record against elite opposition as she notched up the 6th Top 5 win of her career, and 4th in a row.
“I would say that it’s for sure one of the biggest ones [wins],” she said. “I think also beating Serena was equally big.”
Heading into the match, Osaka was the clear favourite, fresh off winning her 4th major title and on a 23-match winning streak, but after 418 unbeaten days, it proved to be Sakkari’s day.
The opening set was astonishing, with 2 clean return winners from Sakkari enabling her to break Osaka from 40-0 up in the first game and, having set the tone, the 25-year-old didn’t look back.
Continuing to tee off on her opponent’s second serve, Sakkari dropped just 8 points in the set, and just one double-fault behind her own delivery.
A shellshocked Osaka was almost entirely unable to find the court, contributing 12 unforced errors in 34 points, frequently within the first shot or two of a rally.
The result was the 15th bagel set Osaka has received in her professional career, and 8th at WTA or Billie Jean King Cup level, but going on to win 4 of those matches.
Committing to longer rallies and finding more first serves, Osaka saved a total of 6 break points in her first 2 service games of the second and, in between them, she broke Sakkari to take control of the scoreboard.
“I felt like I was getting there,” said Osaka. “I felt that even though it wasn’t like pretty tennis—like, I like to try to play perfectly, but, you know, that doesn’t really happen most of the time, so I thought even though it wasn’t pretty tennis, I was trying to find a way to win the set.”
Her backhand was firing, while Sakkari’s aggressive strategy was now resulting in over-pressing mistakes, but despite Osaka raising her game, the Greek refused to let the set get away from her just as the Japanese lost focus.
A blitzed backhand winner enabled the Greek to break back for 3-4, coming back from 40-0 down, and from then on Sakkari began to dominate again.
A tentative Osaka was unable to execute with her usual power and, serving at 4-4 and in control of the point, she opted to carefully steer her backhand from line to line instead of hitting out on it.
Sakkari duly punished this with a pinpoint lob, and went on to break by unleashing on a backhand return.
“I just had a little bit of time in the changeover [down 1-4] and thought about the strategy again,” said Sakkari. “I think I lost that a little bit in the beginning of the second set.
“So focusing on my strategy was the key. I knew that if I can break her back, then I can serve clever and I can serve the right way to just come back and win the second set, as well.”
The world No 25 is through to the semi-finals for the first time at a WTA 1000 event, and planned to celebrate her upset win with a nice dinner and a game of Monopoly.
“For sure we are just going to enjoy it with my team, and then back to work. That’s our routine, every day,” the 25-year-old said.
Osaka’s bad day at the office was underscored by her subpar 41% first serve percentage for the match.
“Yeah, definitely my serve wasn’t, my first serve wasn’t going in at all today,” admitted Osaka. “I’m not really sure if it’s technical. I don’t think so, just because I felt like technique-wise I have been getting better.
“I also feel like with Wim we always do, like, serve practices, and the rhythm at this tournament was pretty good. So for me I felt like today’s service problems kind of came out of nowhere.”
Sakkari’s next opponent is Andreescu, who outlasted Sorribes Tormo to reach her spot int the Miami semi-finals in another 3-set battle for the Canadian, 6-4 3-6 6-3.
“The main thing today was fighting harder than her,” she explained after the 2 hour, 35 minute slugfest.
“I say that a lot, but I know that she is an incredible fighter, so that was the main goal and I did that.”
Despite the 15-month absence, the 20-year-old is into her second semi-final after Wednesday night’s battle that left her doubled over at the net but still able to share a smile with her otherwise unflappable opponent.
“She plays very different than most of the players on tour,” she added. “She’s difficult to play because of that. You don’t always get the same rhythm. She gets to a lot of balls.
“That’s what I told her at the net. I was, like, ‘Girl, you can run. You’re crazy!’”
Sorribes Tormo is one of the tour’s fastest-rising talents, one who employed a mix of heavy spin and relentless athleticism to already outfox 3 seeds en route to the biggest quarter-final of her career, upsetting Australian Open runner-up Jennifer Brady, the 13th-seeded American, Kazakstan’s Elena Rybakina (21), and Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur (27), all in 3 sets.
Andreescu battled back from a 3-0, double-break deficit to seal the opening set, but a string of 7 straight breaks in the second saw her taken the distance for the 3rd time in 4 matches this week.
In set two, Sorribes Tormo’s decisive service hold came by winning 2 straight points at 30-30, as a 23-shot rally, ended when an Andreescu forehand found the net, sealed the game in her favour.
The Spaniard broke for a 4th and final time to push the match to a decider,
“The match was just super up and down, like at one point she was on fire, and then I was on fire, and it just kept going like that. It could have been either one of our matches,” Andreescu said.
Consolidating after another marathon game, the Canadian shrugged off a late break and obvious exhaustion as she served for the match, and remained keenly attuned to her opportunities as she smacked a forehand return to pull up match point.
In the last long rally, Andreescu camped in the middle of the court, running Sorribes Tormo side to side before putting away her 42nd winner to complete Miami’s semi-final line-up.
“For me it shows that I can get through those tough moments,” she said. “Today my body was giving out, and then my mind gave out at one point because I was just thinking about how tired I was, and then it’s just like, ‘How do I regroup?’
“That’s kind of what happened the last couple of matches, too, super long three-setters.”
In all, the Canadian struck 42 winners, more than double Sorribes Tormo’s total of 17, but also totalled 42 unforced errors to the Spaniard’s 21, while the two combined to break serve 17 times in the match.
Andreescu’s praise for the Spaniard, who will crack the Top 50 as a result of her best-ever performance at a WTA 1000 event, continued in her post-match press conference.
“She doesn’t give you pace at all,” observed Andreescu. “With those high, heavy balls, you really have to generate your own pace. That consists of a lot of leg power, arm power, you’re putting your all into it, because if you just give, like, a ball with nothing on it, she’s going to take advantage of that.”
Andreescu was coming off the biggest win of her comeback, and though decidedly out of sorts to kick off her quarter-final, she was happy to report the groin injury suffered earlier in the event against Amanda Anisimova had largely faded.
“I played a lot of matches, but I’m going to get the right treatment, gonna get some good sleeps in. There is no pain anywhere, so I’m feeling good.”
There will be no break, however, as she faces Sakkari in the second semi-final on Thursday.
“I watched a little bit of that match [against Osaka]. She played really well. Like, she was just dominating right from the start. Naomi wasn’t quite there,” Andreescu said.
“She’s coming off a great win. I mean, I’m coming off a pretty great win too, but I’m sure she’s very confident, and I have watched her play many, many times so I kind of know what to expect, but obviously it’s different once I step out there.
“I’m just gonna have to adjust with what I know now and what I am going to see on the court. But I know it’s going to be a battle, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
The first semi-final will be played at 6pm BST between top seed Ash Barty from Australia and the No 5 seed, Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, which can be viewed live or on replay on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.