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Maria Sakkari gets past Jessica Pegula at the DC Open and will face Coco Gauff in the final

By HOWARD FENDRICH
AP Tennis Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Coming off a pair of first-round exits at the past two Grand Slam tournaments, Maria Sakkari was not necessarily anticipating a terrific showing at the DC Open. So how does a victory over the event’s No. 1 seed and a run to her first final of the season sound?

Sakkari let a huge lead disappear Saturday but recovered to take the last four games and beat top-seeded Jessica Pegula 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 in the semifinals. Next up will be a meeting against No. 3 seed Coco Gauff, a 19-year-old American, for the championship Sunday.

“I’ll be deadly honest with you,” Sakkari said. “I didn’t expect my tennis to be that good this week.”

Gauff advanced with a far more straightforward 6-3, 6-3 victory over defending champion Liudmila Samsonova.

Gauff is working in Washington with new coach Pere Riba — who’ll be with her at least through the U.S. Open, which starts later this month — and temporary consultant Brad Gilbert. The arrangement sure seems to be paying off so far: The 2022 French Open runner-up hasn’t dropped a set and has ceded a total of 14 games through three matches heading into Sunday.

“She’s super young, but at the same time, she has been on the tour for years,” the fourth-seeded Sakkari said about Gauff, against whom the 28-year-old from Greece is 4-1. “So she’s not a new player to us. She has been there.”

Sakkari and Gauff both bowed out in the first round at Wimbledon a month ago. For Sakkari, that followed an immediate loss at the French Open in May, too — not the sorts of results hoped for by someone who was a two-time Grand Slam semifinalist in 2021.

“It gets into your head a little bit,” Sakkari said. “You don’t have that match preparation that you wish to have. It’s a confidence thing.”

That was something of an issue for a stretch against Pegula, the 2019 champion in Washington.

Sakkari was up by a set and a break at 4-1 in the second before momentarily losing her way.

“What I told myself was that it happens almost every week that someone’s leading (by) a set and a break and then the opponent comes back,” said Sakkari, who is 0-5 for her career in hard-court finals and had been 0-5 in all semifinals this year. “So I was like, ‘You’re not the first. You’re not the last.’ … I was like, ‘Just don’t freak out.’”

The men’s semifinals scheduled for later Saturday were No. 1 seed Taylor Fritz vs. No. 12 Tallon Griekspoor, followed by No. 5 Grigor Dimitrov vs. No. 9 Dan Evans. Fritz, Griekspoor and Evans all had to win twice on Friday after much of Thursday’s schedule was wiped out by rain.

It was hazy and steamy on Saturday, with no breeze to speak of, a temperature above 85 degrees Fahrenheit (30 Celsius) and humidity at 50%. In the stands, many spectators tried to cool themselves by flapping hand-held fans.

Pegula, a 29-year-old American who will be ranked No. 3 next week, was not attempting to hide her frustration at how things were going as she fell behind.

“She was playing lights-out there, for a while,” Pegula said.

After dropping one point early in the second set, Pegula shrieked. After missing a backhand return in the same game, she chucked her racket to the ground. After double-faulting later, she smacked a ball into the stands.

At 4-2 in the second, Sakkari was two points from serving for the victory. And then, as has happened before to Sakkari, she tightened up, began playing far less cleanly and gave up that edge.

“Sometimes she can be up and playing really good. And then sometimes her level can kind of drop or she can get frustrated,” Pegula said. “I kind of just telling myself, ‘OK, it’s got to stop at some point.’”

It did, and Pegula grabbed five consecutive games.

When the second set ended, Pegula waved her hands to get the partisan crowd to make more noise.

From 2-all in the third, though, Sakkari asserted herself and took over.

Asked to assess Sunday’s matchup, Pegula — who often plays doubles with Gauff — said: “I think there will be a lot of nerves, and we’ll just see who plays best.”

___

AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis

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