When character shapes performance. Maria Sakkari unveils the challenges of controlling body, mind and soul in the contemporary tennis world
The hard facts: Maria is no.23 in the world ranking at only 24. She is right-handed, she has worked fiercely on her forehand over the last few years, and doesn’t really have weak points
The note on my calendar app about my appointment with Maria Sakkari, is followed by a couple of exclamation points, maybe more. To find an opening, we had to really study her busy schedule that is chock-full of tournaments, Grand Slams, training sessions and endless travelling. In the past few years, Maria has been constantly living with a suitcase attached to her and a boarding pass in hand
After countless back and forth to find time for the photoshoot, today is the day. Thankfully, the weather is on our side. The sun shines bright on the urban setting – Athens is blessed like that, often even in the winter.
I’ve never met her before. But I know her, like almost everyone else in Greece. You see, Maria Sakkari is the best Greek female tennis player right now. It is true that she represents a country with no real tennis background. However, something serious and interesting is unfolding in greek tennis lately. If you follow the sport, maybe you’ve caught wind of it.
She is No. 29 in the world ranking. If you enjoy technical details, she is right-handed, employs a two-hand backhand. She has worked fiercely on her forehand over the last few years and doesn’t really have any weak points.
She is 1.72m tall and really tough. Another very strong point of hers are her legs. She covers a lot ground really quickly, and is never out of breath. She really likes the grass at Wimbledon, but also the Rolland-Garros red clay. Maybe she even prefers the clay a little bit. Maybe.
She is only 24 years old. She has tennis DNA running through her veins. Her mother was also a tennis champion. Her grandfather was involved in the sport too.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to play out the rest. Maria was on the court with her racket in hand since her first memories – she was barely five when she first played. She participated in her first tournament at the age of 14. She remembers it as clear as day – that unripe, innocent touch with the sport. Word is that, to this day, she plays with the same, unmitigated enthusiasm. Just like back then.
Physical skills alone are not enough. What makes the difference is the mentality
Standing at our meeting point, I see a white Porsche Cayenne Coupé driving towards me. It is quite a sight. The car approaches, the motor turns off. Maria hops off the driver’s seat, to the soundtrack of subtle crackles and pops as the metal cools off. We greet each other. She carries with her all the necessary equipment of a tennis player, like you’ve seen on TV. Thankfully the boot is big enough to accommodate all of it with ease.
There she is then, right in front of me, a fresh, athletic girl that, even if you don’t know her, you can tell from a thousand miles that she is 100% devoted to her sport. Even in her school years her life look a lot like training-class-back to training, rinse and repeat.
My first thought is “this is one bright, strong girl that looks you straight in the eye”. There is nothing snobbish or cold about her. She is polite, feels familiar somehow and radiates a kind of mediterranean energy. This is it! If I had to describe her with just a phrase, that would be it, mediterranean energy. She channels it with her strong handshake, her enthusiastic demeanor, her readiness to accommodate the needs of the photoshoot, her bright smile
We find a quiet spot to sit and I hit record. We start with what the lessons were that 2019 taught her. “I learned”, she responds, “that you need to reward yourself and not be too hard on it. This was my biggest mistake in the earlier years. I learned to be more positive and this brought better results in my sport. I am a perfectionist and I know very well that being one has its downsides. So I learned to be more forgiving with myself – when it’s necessary”.
This last phrase, “when it’s necessary,” has a very important meaning in her life. Because it is well known that she is anything but forgiving when it comes to training. She works hard, very hard. It is well known in the tennis world that she is not one of the athletes that crack under pressure. In her own words “there was not a single coach of mine that saw me struggle even in the most demanding training. They knew I’d push through”. I believe her. The easy, skin-deep proof is her body. It is chieseld with all those telltale signs of endless hours of training.
She is also very aware that, in the crème de la crème of the tennis universe, the so called Grand Slam, there is no space for compromises. It is a strict, lonely sport, with an almost Victorian code of conduct, full of bows, automated moves by the ball-boys, and bleaches so silent you think you’re in the opera house
There might be a full team supporting you and getting you ready, but in the court you are all by yourself. Even the faintest nod from your coach is punishable. There is nobody to guide you. There isn’t a football-style halftime, nor a basketball-type timeout to get a pep talk from the bench.
In the strict and polite world of tennis, you cannot curse, you cannot relieve the pressure. The viewers will scoff at you if you break your racket – and you really don’t want that. It will work against you. There is only the pressure, the opponent, ball, net and you. That’s it.
Within this work hypothesis (sic), Maria seems to focus a lot on the mental aspect. Her touchstones for handling pressure, as well as her favourite players, are Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin. Both Belgian, by the way. She also really respects Serena Williams. “They have a different culture, of course. I am much more expressive as a Greek, much less quiet. But if you don’t possess Serena’s immense self-control, you cannot reach that high. Physical skills alone are not enough.”
This last phrase is food for thought, and a new piece of info. “In women’s tennis, the differences among us are few,” she explains. “It’s nothing like men’s. We are more or less the same on a physical level. What makes the biggest difference is how each player handles herself psychologically.”
I watch her standing up straight, focused, as if expecting me to “serve” the next question. So, what are her goals? She doesn’t think twice: “some players are content if they reach 50th or 30th place in the global ranking. They are happy to remain there. There is money, a dose of success, some fame. Not for me though. I want to be the best tennis player in the world, it’s as simple as that. I don’t doubt a small child would say the same, but I believe in myself and I’m giving it my all”.
”I want to be the best tennis player in the world, it’s as simple as that”
Her immediate goal is to reach the world’s top 10, to keep getting better and “once there, everything is possible”. Maria enjoys pushing herself, facing challenges. When she travelled alone, just 18 years old, to train in Spain, she was at peace with the fact that she would have to be away from her family and friends for four years. “There was a lot of loneliness, I would maybe go out to dinner once every two weeks and that was it. It was just training and being by myself. However, this hardship made me grow up – I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for this experience”.
Today, at the age of 24, her lifestyle hasn’t changed so dramatically from her post-adolescent years or even her first tournament, 10 years ago. The only thing that’s missing is school – everything else is there. Competing, training, competing, rinse and repeat. Stir in the Grand Slam tournaments that she’s been taking part in since she was 20, and you have the whole picture
And there, exactly, lies the whole secret. Her eyes sparkle as a reflex when I intentionally say the word “routine”. This is the way that Maria Sakkari wants to live her life, with hard work and competition. She is terribly bored when she’s not on the move, she can’t just sit at home. A week of rest is too much for her. This girl has so much energy, mediterranean energy, a fighting spirit. I see her pulling away in the white Cayenne Coupé. She’s accelerating hard. Just like her career.
All about Maria
Born: July 25, 1995
She listens to: U2, Coldplay
She loves: Spaghetti with minced meat sauce
She rests: on Syros
She believes that: You need to remain grounded
She strives to: Beat her fear of heights
Her favourite tennis player: Kim Clijsters
She enjoys: Driving her Porsche Cayenne Coupé on twisty roads
She is: a hard worker
*Published on CHRISTOPHORUS Porsche Magazine 1/2020
By John Konstantopoulos / Photos by Radu Chindris
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