Can Witt put Sakkari’s famous intensity to better use?

March 17, 2024

Can Witt put Sakkari’s famous intensity to better use?

“Don’t be too impressed by that,” a smiling Maria Sakkari told a reporter in her press conference at Indian Wells last Wednesday night. “There’s no reason to be impressed.”

For most of us physical non-specimens, what the ultra-sculpted Sakkari was talking about did seem pretty impressive. Even a little crazy. After winning a three-set match over Diane Parry, she was seen doing running and resistance-band drills with her trainer.

“It wasn’t a workout, it was a cool down,” Sakkari assured the journalist. “That’s, you know, a normal routine for me.”

The 28-year-old Greek has never lacked for intensity. Millions of people learned that while watching Netflix’s Break Point documentary, and seeing how devastated she was by every defeat she took. Fans in Stadium 2 on Wednesday could see that intensity again - this time in a more positive way - in the jaw-clenching scream she let out after coming back from a break down in the third to beat Parry.

Three years ago, it looked as if Sakkari’s combination of physicality and determination would eventually take her to a Grand Slam title, and possibly the top of the rankings. In 2021, she had a match point against Barbora Krejcikova to reach the final at Roland Garros, and she was favored to win her US Open semifinal against teenage qualifier Emma Raducanu. But she couldn’t get over the line either time. After her loss to Raducanu, Sakkari compared herself to the tortoise in its race with the hare.

“I’m a person that I need my time,” she said. “I always need to go step by step. My career so far has been a marathon, not a sprint.”

As realistic as she was trying to be, Sakkari probably didn’t expect what came next. Over the last two years, her steps have mostly taken her backwards. She’s still in the Top 10, but she hasn’t been past the fourth round at a Slam since 2021, and in 2023 she lost in the first round at the final three majors of the year.

Still, determination springs eternal with Sakkari. Last fall, she won her first title in four years, in Guadalajara. This spring, she hired David Witt, famous for his good work with Venus Williams and Jessica Pegula, as her new coach. Two weeks into their partnership, she’s into the quarterfinals at Indian Wells.

“He’s just very relaxed and very laid back,” Sakkari says of Witt. “That’s what I need, because I’m very hard on myself. So I just need someone that, you know, he doesn’t stress me.”

“He’s so funny that I just enjoy my time with him on and off the court.”

On the court, Sakkari says she and Witt have started to work on her service toss, and on stepping forward on her returns more.

“That was something I used to do really well, maybe two, three years ago, and then for some reason I stopped.”

Even in her win over Parry, some of Sakkari’s old problems surfaced. Whether it’s because of nerves or overaggressiveness or just basic inconsistency, she can go through phases where she’s missing everything in sight. Against Parry, her serve went off in the second set, then her forehand followed, then her backhand took its turn making mistakes.

“She’s lost the radar,” one commentator said, as another forehand sailed long for no apparent reason, and Sakkari glared toward her player box in disbelief.

To me, the idea of her taking her returns - or any ground stroke, for that matter - earlier, and from farther up in the court, is a good one. She obviously has the athleticism and the shots to attack and push her opponents around, but too often she gets stuck hitting rally balls from behind the baseline. Grinding steadiness will never be her strong suit.

“There are a couple of girls that have made an extra step in their careers, and I just want to try, and you know, catch them,” Sakkari says, likely referring to recent first-time Slam champs such as Elena Rybakina and Coco Gauff.

“By working with David, I think I can do that. I just feel like I have the athletic abilities...It’s just that I need to add a couple of things.”

A better and more confident Sakkari was visible in the first and third sets against Parry, but an inconsistent and stressed one was still very much visible in the second. Witt may be the man for this mission. He helped keep Venus in Slam contention well into her 30s, and helped Pegula rise higher in the rankings than just about anyone thought possible a few years ago.

Step by step, Sakkari says she’ll go. She’ll take the next one against Emma Navarro, back in Stadium 2, in Thursday’s evening session. They’ve played twice in the last six months, and have split those two matches. The young American’s steadiness could make life tough for the Greek.

“She has variety in her game,” Sakkari says. “She’s in top form, according to her results. I’m just going to challenge myself one more time.” –

Can Witt put Sakkari’s famous intensity to better use?