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    HomeSportMaria Sakkari outlasts Coco Gauff on a strange and wild night in...

    Maria Sakkari outlasts Coco Gauff on a strange and wild night in the desert

    There are tennis matches that play out like a game of chess, filled with attacks and feints and turning on the slightest strategic adjustments.

    And then there are matches like Friday night’s semifinal between Coco Gauff and Maria Sakkari at the BNP Paribas Open, a hard-hitting, full-gas battle between two of the best pure athletes in this sport or any other.

    Subtle tennis this was not, more just a survival test of the fittest.

    On a strange, cold, rainy night in the desert, a match that lasted nearly three hours took five and a half to complete. There were two rain delays at Indian Wells, the second one lasting nearly 90 minutes and requiring leaf blowers, squeegees and dozens of towels to make the court playable.

    And thank the tennis gods it was, because what unfolded after was high drama, with Sakkari somehow prevailing 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-2, when it all looked like it would slip away.

    First, Sakkari and Gauff slugged and ran and took the measure of each other for the first seven games before the first raindrops stopped play.

    There was the second act, just before and then after that first rain delay, when Gauff struggled to land serves and control her forehand, and even sought medical attention for apparent wooziness, allowing Sakkari to grab the first set, 6-4, and plenty of momentum. Then more rain, and when it was finished an even more lost Gauff, her frustration boiling over with grunts and swats of her racket. This was all going to be over very soon, wasn’t it? 

    Late on Thursday night, after Sakkari outlasted Emma Navarro, the 22-year-old American, in another three-hour battle of banging, she spoke of how much she enjoys playing Gauff. 

    “When you play Coco, you have to accept that she’s going to get two, three more balls than anyone else,” Sakkari said. “It’s nice to have girls that are actually athletic and fit. Then you feel like, OK, it’s time to challenge myself and play against someone that is equally as fit as I am.”

    It’s a level of fitness that allowed for the third act, a final, furious comeback from a one-set, 5-2, two service-break deficit that would have had plenty of players packing it in. Instead, Gauff decided to go out swinging, to channel all the frustration of the night into hitting a fuzzy yellow ball.

    She cracked it down the line and across the court. She smacked forehands and backhands and serves, changing pace when she needed to extend a point, but mostly this just became the contest of whacking, running and lunging that Sakkari said it would be. Gauff won six of the next seven games, including the tiebreaker, saving a series of match points with Sakkari trying to serve it out. 

    Nope. On to a third set they went. 

    There was a time, maybe even just a month ago, when Sakkari would have frittered away this match, crumbling in the face of a home-country crowd trying to will a favorite daughter back into a match and over the line, unable to move beyond having been so close and come up short. That was before she started working with Ben Crowe, the mindset guru behind Ash Barty’s success who tries to get every athlete he works with to remember they are playing a game. When Sakkari kicks at a flying ball in a tense moment, like she is trying to volley it past a goalkeeper, or hops and lets one zip through her legs, that’s Crowe’s handiwork in action. 

    She has a new coach this tournament, too, David Witt, who worked for years with Venus Williams and then took Jessica Pegula from outside the top 100 to No 3 in the world. He hasn’t done all that much yet, she said. It’s early days. But she said he makes her laugh. A lot. 

    go-deeper

    Ultimately, there’s no way to know what made Sakkari rise from the gut punch of losing match points and near total control of the night, and from being down a service break in the final set as Gauff surged.

    “You can lose your head,” she said.

    But she didn’t. She ran a little harder and lasted one shot longer on just enough points until a final ball from Gauff sailed long.

    “Amazing night,” she said.     

    Sakkari will now face Iga Swiatek, the world No 1, in Sunday’s final. Swiatek did what she has been doing the whole tournament, making a wreckage of her opponents. 

    Friday’s victim was Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine, one of the hottest players of the last month. Kostyuk can win with power or spin, by battling from the backcourt and by coming forward and forcing points to their rightful end.

    The problem is, so can Swiatek, better and more consistently than any woman on earth. She won 6-2, 6-1 in a little more than an hour.

    “I have all positive vibes,” she said when it was finished.

    As well she should.

    Her matches here this year have been more like physical punishments than sporting affairs. She has played nine full sets. In six of them, her opponents have failed to win more than two games. Caroline Wozniacki retired with an injury in their quarterfinal. Kostyuk needed medical treatment on her foot and nearly had to retire too on Friday.

    Swiatek isn’t crazy about cities, other than Paris, where she has won the French Open three times. She thrives in nature, at tournaments held away from the bustle. 

    The Coachella Valley is just about perfect for her, the snow-capped high desert mountains rising in the distance, a vast horizon in every direction. Sakkari, who lost to Swiatek in the final two years ago, likes it plenty here, too, especially after Friday night.

    (Top photo: Robert Prange/Getty Images)

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