Everything around Maria Sakkari seems to be superimposed to the superlative degree: effort, consistency, perseverance, victories, speed, kindness and elegance.
The Greek tennis player, one of the top 10 at the moment, has all eyes on her. But who is she?
Marie Claire photographed her before the Australian Open and talked to her about the role of athletes as role models, mental endurance, and her relationship with fashion.
An exclusive photo shoot and full-length interview with Maria Sakkari in the midst of her preparations for the Australian Open was, from the outset, an overly ambitious endeavour.
At the level that the top tennis player has reached, almost any deviation from her schedule is almost ruled out – especially when she is on a trajectory of maximum concentration for such an important tournament.
On the other hand, listening to her autobiography in just a few sentences, with minimal but frighteningly responsible words, is invaluable satisfaction.
“Tennis, clearly, shaped me, made me what I am today,” she said.
Explaining immediately that “I have been involved in the sport since I was a child and it has been a part of my life since I can remember.
“I was born a fighter, it is natural for me to fight with all my strength, and this element of my character definitely matches my capacity as a professional tennis player.
“And I believe that it is my militancy that adds something more whenever I fight.”
And yet, despite her dedication to tennis, despite the inconceivably high demands she has to meet, as a Top 10 tennis player, Sakkari willingly reveals why the cover photo features Dior: she will be one of the faces of Dior Watches.
As she explained, “being an ambassador is a dream come true. I have always loved the brand and I have worn Dior pieces on many occasions.
“I find that there is always something that fits my obligation, whether it is an awards ceremony or my life on the road, as I am obliged to travel constantly.
“I love fashion and I am always looking for new things that make me feel comfortable wearing them.
“Dior, on the other hand, is a brand that is in constant search of perfection and elegance.
“I really like that it does not stand still and is constantly experimenting, in an artistic, elegant way, emphasising the femininity of every woman.”
Finally, global interest in tennis focused on the controversy on whether the No. 1 tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic, would be allowed to play in Australia.
Sakkari chose “no comment” about the issue – not because she hesitates to express her opinion publicly, but because she wants to stay firmly focused on her own preparation in the face of a crucial tournament.
“Tennis is a complex sport,” she said, noting that it takes speed, flexibility, quick reactions, strength and endurance – to name just a few of the skills required.
“Sometimes a game can last less than half an hour, but other times it can last more than three hours.
“Tennis is a very tough sport. You are out there alone and you have to deal with stress, anxiety, fatigue, adrenaline, among many others.
“But I think it was all these elements that made me fall in love with tennis, the idea that no match is the same, because there are so many factors that affect how you put your foot on the court.”
Speaking of the sensitive psychology of a tennis player on the court, the conversation comes to the voice of Naomi Osaka, the world’s top female tennis player, who in July 2021 shouted, with enough force to be heard around the world, “It’s O.K. not to be O.K.”
The open and public admission and then her decision to withdraw from an ongoing tournament, on the pretext that she was not in a good state to play at Roland Garros, Osaka paid her fine but also harsh criticism from a portion of the world.
For Sakkari, however, she became an example of how every athlete and, in general, every person who suffers can deal with the problem: “I believe that it is very important for us athletes to start talking about such issues.
“An athlete’s life is hard and, after all, we are human too.
“People should always remember this.
“Whoever speaks openly, as Naomi did, makes other people open up, admit that they are suffering, and so that they may be able to find the help and support they need – or even take a break from action, to avoid suffering, overwork and burn.”
Since last September, Maria Sakkari holds the title of the first Greek woman in history to be accepted in the closed club of the ten best tennis players on the planet.
Celebrating in her own way for this remarkable achievement, she sent the following message via Twitter:
“People don’t realize how big it is for someone who at the age of 26 – not the age of 20 – cracks into the Top 10. When no one believed I could do it, myself and the people around me really believed in me.”
Without needing more than 50 words in English, Sakkari re-introduced herself to the global tennis audience from the beginning.
“My big dream is to win a Grand Slam,” she told Marie Claire bluntly – referring to the top tennis tournaments, the famous Australian Open, Roland Garros in Paris, the Wimbledon in London and the US Open.
However, talking to her, one immediately realises that not only does she only know where she is going, but she never forgets where she started from, and to what she owes to her family, especially to her mother, also a tennis player, Angeliki Kanellopoulou.
“My mum has always been my No. 1 supporter, from day one. That is why I believe that my mother represents a huge share of what I have achieved in my career so far.
“She has the experience of a player and so she has really helped me along the way. I seek her advice whenever I come across new data and I need someone’s guidance.
“Also, my mum comes to the games and watches me whenever she can and I really like to have her by my side as I travel from country to country, around the world, participating in tournaments during the year.”
According to the athlete’s special bond with her mother, tennis was almost a matter of genes for her.
“I love my parents deeply and I know that raising a tennis player requires great sacrifices,” she said.
“I am grateful that they put me on a path that led me to the fulfillment of my dreams.
“I chose tennis from a very young age. I concentrated on this as I realised I did not want to do anything else.
“That’s why I do not feel that I have lost much as a teenager, I was happy that I could dedicate myself to tennis.”
Of course, the systematic involvement in tennis with the prospect of a professional career as an athlete and aiming for the absolute top presupposed that Sakkari would live outside Greece – and in fact from a very young age.
Even for that, however, she does not regret it, because, as she said, “life in Spain where I had to move from a little girl was incredible and everything I experienced there helped me to become the tennis player I am today.
“Of course, as a teenager living abroad, you miss family, you miss friends. Maybe that’s why I’m trying to spend as much time as I can in Athens now.
“This is my base and this is where I train whenever I’m not somewhere else on the planet for match obligations.
“I always return to my homeland and either I live in Athens, or I make trips to the islands and elsewhere, with my family and friends.
“And it goes without saying that I have the best memories from Greece, from my childhood and everything. I lived growing up as a Greek woman.”
“A lot of people play tennis, but only an infinitesimal percentage have the potential to reach the Top 6, like Maria,” explained Lawrence Frangopan, a sports manager for the past 20 years and one of the key figures in Sakkari’s team.
“I see the life of a tennis player as a sequel of great sacrifices – and great rewards. From week to week there are times when a player can be promoted or demoted – and this happens all year round.
“Not all of them are made to withstand such pressure and that is why those who reach the top are because they deserve it.
“I would say that what is required is inner balance and spiritual strength, and being able to do your best every week – but also not letting defeats affect you. Few athletes can do this consistently over and over again. But those who succeed stay high for years.”
One of the greatest modern tennis players, the Spaniard Rafael Nadal, has said that his biggest enemy is not defeat, but the fear of defeat. And Nadal should probably know what he is saying.
The duel with oneself and the momentum looking back, to a bad result, to an unfortunate moment, to an instantaneous mistake, is one of the most critical battles that every tennis player gives, almost from the first moment of her career.
In this sense, Maria Sakkari can only be absorbed in perfecting herself, exercising non-stop – but with a scientifically designed program – her body and exercising her mind to focus only on what helps her to win.
“Tennis is a sport with constant and successive transitions. One week you can win an event and the next you can lose in the first round.
“There are many emotions that explode inside you that you need to tame, which is often difficult. But the more you play, the more you get used to it.
“I try not to let defeats affect me, as I know that there will always be another chance to win. So, as soon as a tournament is over, I go back to the field and try to get better, to improve the points where I am behind, so that I am ready for the next match.”
2021 was undoubtedly a milestone year for the athlete, as she managed to win a spot on the Top 10.
“In 2021 I reached for the first time a semifinal of a Grand Slam tournament, at Roland Garros. This was a crucial point for me and I am very happy that I managed to end such a good year with another success, reaching the finals of the WTA Tour in Mexico.”
At the same time, embodying, on the one hand, the “aristocratic” glamour of tennis and, on the other, her own dynamic interests, Sakkari has associated her name with one of the most emblematic premium and sporty companies of the world car industry, Porsche.
“I’m very lucky to work with certain brands – and Porsche stands out among them. It makes me proud to be associated with a name associated with technology – and also – superiority.
“Driving is something I really like and I have a passion for cars, so when I’m at home and driving my own Porsche, I feel really alive.
“The feeling of moving with such an advanced vehicle is unmatched by anything like it and that’s why I feel lucky to be able to come and go from my home to training every day with such a car, which combines adrenaline with safety.
“In addition, it is a brand that pushes people to pursue the fulfillment of their dreams, so that alone makes me feel that we have a lot to do with this company.
“I feel that Porsche, just because those who design and build its cars seek perfection, supports me as I travel to the top.”
SAKKATTACK, as she calls herself on Instagram, (where she shares photos of her training, matches and her human side of her – that is, happy photos with friends and her partner Konstantinos Mitsotakis), is an athlete who has already makes you extremely proud.
She is of course determined and destined for many more victories.
“Tennis has taught me that you have to seize opportunities when they arise in your life,” she said.
“Tennis is a game in which a single moment of hesitation can deprive you of everything.
“So, if you believe in something and rely on your own strengths, you should always do what your heart tells you. And to give it your all.”
The interview was published in Marie Claire issue 391, February 2022.