US Open 2018: Anastasija Sevastova stifles Sloane Stephens to make first Slam semis and script endearing comeback story
Anastasija Sevastova advanced to her first Grand Slam semi-final as she gave Sloane Stephens little room to breathe, let alone escape in the last-eight encounter.
Anastasija Sevastova comes from the small port city of Liepaja, which in Latvia is known as the ‘City where the wind is born.’ On a muggy afternoon at the US Open, she didn’t quite blow away defending champion Sloane Stephens as much as she stifled her.
The Latvian had no apparent power or pace, but she had the touch and variety to smother Stephens’ game. As the mercury rose above 37 degree Celsius at the barely-filled Arthur Ashe Stadium and the humidity sapped energy, Sevastova tightened the noose around Stephens. The drop shot proved to be the Latvian's most effective weapon on Tuesday as she took out the American 6-2, 6-3 in an hour and 24 minutes.
“Mentally, physically, I just wasn't connecting,” said Stephens after the match. “It just was a really tough day. The heat doesn't make it any more fun.”
As the reigning champion, the spotlight was brighter on Stephens at this tournament – her home Slam. The 25-year-old had, last year, shrugged off a long injury layoff to win the title in 2017. Even though she stumbled elsewhere, Stephens could take solace in her US Open triumph. Her season was building up towards the last Slam of the season. At the US Open, she seemed to be cruising after having squeezed out of a tight spot in the second round against Anhelina Kalinina, winning 4-6, 7-5, 6-2.
But Sevastova gave her little room to breathe, let alone escape in the last-eight encounter.
Playing in her third straight quarterfinals at the US Open – she had lost at that stage the previous two editions—the 28-year-old Sevastova looked primed for the big stage. Rather than letting Stephens get into her rallying, counter-punching rhythm, she constantly changed the pace and spin on the ball. Her unpredictability meant that the American was often caught out of position, left to play catch-up to Sevastova’s quick hands and whizzing brain.
Though she never really lost command of the match, Sevastova’s body language suggested otherwise. The petite Latvian was seen constantly frowning and mumbling to her box. Perhaps, the defeat to Stephens at the US Open last year still haunted her. Sevastova had gone down to the American 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 in the last eight in 2017.
“It's always tough to play (Stephens), I think, because her ball is so heavy,” said Sevastova, who had lost 2-6, 2-6 to Stephens at the Canadian Open in August. “She has big spin on the forehand. Also backhand. It's like it comes at you so fast. Also good serve and moving well. It's tough to make points against her, but I had to be aggressive. I had to try to come to the net, play some drop shots, move her, not let her play the game with her forehand, and make the winners.”
The Latvian, already 4-2 up, finished off the opening set by winning eight of the last nine points. Even though Stephens put up some resistance in the second set, clawing back from 2-1 and 4-1 down, she couldn’t quite shake Sevastova off. The American’s US Open title defence finished with a tame forehand error.
“When you don't play big points well, the match can get away from you. I think that's what happened today,” said Stephens, who hit 27 unforced errors on the day. “I didn't convert. I didn't play the big points well, and you don't win matches when you don't take your opportunities.”
It was Stephens' less-heralded Latvian opponent who has been taking her opportunities in New York. Sevastova now has broken her opponents’ serve 28 times in her five matches at the US Open. Given a second chance at tennis, she is making most of it.
She had prematurely retired from the game in 2013 owing to recurring back and muscle injuries. But having returned to tennis in 2015, Sevastova has risen steadily through the ranks and is currently ranked No 18 in the world. On Tuesday, she advanced to her first Grand Slam semi-final.
“I did not have many goals,” Sevastova said of her return. “Maybe the top 100. But now, obviously, when you win more, you have higher goals. And when you're, like, winning a tournament, you think that's normal. I can win it maybe next week again.”
“I think you need some time to look at the journey -- it was an amazing journey these three to four years,” she added. “Right now you're so in the tournament and you don't feel it. In the end, it's amazing, you can't believe it. After I stop, I will look back and be proud of myself, I am sure.”
As endearing as Sevastova’s comeback story is, she faces probably the toughest prospect in women’s tennis: Serena Williams. The two will square off in the semi-finals on Thursday, with the 23-time major champion Williams starting as the firm favourite.
“I feel like a lot of players on our tour suffer in silence. I think that is not cool and not fair and we should definitely approach it differently,” Sloane Stephens said.
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