Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images
Five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams will on Thursday (match pushed from Wednesday due to the rain) take on an opponent who had never played on grass prior to last week in qualifying.
Greek player Maria Sakkari is a self-proclaimed clay specialist and the 20-year-old had her very first hit on grass last week ahead of the Wimbledon qualifying rounds in Roehampton.
She then won all three of her qualies before posting a first round victory in the main draw over Zheng Saisai on Monday, booking a dream second round with Williams.
Her victory over Zheng has provisionally place her in the top-100 for the first time (official rankings come out the Monday after Wimbledon) and she is raring to go higher.
Contesting just her third career grand slam, Sakkari has matched her best performance by reaching the last 64 (she made the second round in Australia in January before losing in three sets to Carla Suarez Navarro).
“It’s a really good first step for every player to make the top-100, not that this is my goal of course, but it’s a really good first step and it feels good because I’ll have the chance to play in the main draw in many tournaments and that’s the important thing,” Sakkari told me.
Sakkari’s mother is Angeliki Kanellopoulo, a former WTA top-50 player, and is with her here at Wimbledon to witness her special run.
For someone who has played the majority of her tournaments on clay, Sakkari has certainly exceeded everyone’s expectations with her four wins on grass this fortnight.
“Clay, clay, clay, clay, right?” she says with a laugh, referring to her tournament history.
“I came here without having any expectations to play good or to feel good but then I had two days of practice on grass and I started playing qualies. I won one match after the other and here I am.
“I was feeling good, so that’s the important thing. I feel good on grass.
“I tried to adapt as fast as I could and I think that’s what helped me to make it.”
There is a gulf in experience between Sakkari and the 36-year-old Williams, who is making her 19th appearance at Wimbledon and her 71st grand slam main draw.
Sakkari is relishing the challenge though.
“I’m excited, it’s going to be a really nice match. I respect her and I respect what she has done all these years,” says Sakkari.
“I watched so many matches of her and her sister (Serena) and I’m looking forward to playing her here.”
Sakkari was born in Athens and moved to Barcelona three years ago to train there.
“It was tough because I have all my best friends in Greece and my family but I knew that I have to make that step to make my career better,” she says.
With barely any Greek players in action on tour, the reaction to Sakkari’s opening round victory has been big back home.Maria Sakkari celebrating her first round win at Wimbledon today pic.twitter.com/hheYHdtXkP— James Peeling (@Moo_Tennis) June 27, 2016
“My phone hasn’t stopped. It’s really nice to receive all that kind of love from people. I know that for the moment it’s just me from Greece and a few more players like Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is the No1 junior in the world. It’s important for them to have names on the tour and it makes me feel good, it’s nice to have that,” she says.
Williams is seeded No8 at Wimbledon and she survived a tough encounter with Donna Vekic in the first round.
At 36, she has been on tour for over two decades (she turned pro in 1994) and she is showing no signs of stopping anytime soon. “I don't think anyone feels older. You have this infinity inside of you that feels like you could go forever,” said a philosophical Venus on Monday.
“That's how I feel on the court. As long as I'm halfway decent, can get my racquet on the ball, I think I can make something happen. So far so good.”
Venus played her first Wimbledon main draw in 1997, losing in three sets to Magdalena Grzybowska, but reached the quarter-finals the following two years before winning her first of five titles here in 2000.
“I do remember my first year. It wasn't very fantastic. I was just so nervous. It was tough to play your first time. But thankfully since then, I was able to handle my nerves a little better. You know, there's nothing like the first time,” said Venus.
Sakkari will certainly never forget hers.