By Jane Voigt
Sloane Stephens and Anastasija Sevastova have come a long way. This afternoon at the U.S. Open they went farther, each advancing to the quarterfinals in the last major of the year. Stephens defeated Julia Goerges; and, Sevastova took out wild card, Maria Sharapova.
Stephens returned to tennis at Wimbledon, after recovering from surgery due to a heel injury she suffered at the Rio Olympics last summer. Sevastova returned to tennis in 2015 after she retired in 2013 because of too many injuries and never-ending illnesses.
Fans will remember Stephens’ pre-Olympic on-court behavior. She didn’t try. Looked like she wanted to board a jet and escape. Fans became un-fans. She even once told a gaggle of reporters that she didn’t care if her ranking dropped to 800, she was going to do it all her way.
“Before I was, like, so emotional,” Stephens said, as reported by The Washington Post on September 1. “Now, my life in good, everything’s good. I play a sport for a living. I don’t operate on people. I don’t — this is not life or death. It’s hard to realize that when you’re out there playing, because there’s a lot riding one it: prize money, points, so many things go into it. Now I’m kind of, like, I do this for fun. I love tennis.”
Today, Stephens’ win over Goerges, 6-3, 3-6, 6-1, advances her to her first slam quarterfinal since Wimbledon in 2013. Stephens’ summer results predicted this deep drive through the draw, after semifinal runs in Toronto and Cincinnati this summer. However, facts are better than predictions.
“I worked really hard [during recovery] and I hoped something like this would happen. And it did,” she said.
Before Toronto Stephens was ranked No. 934. After that semifinal she was ranked No. 151. After Cincinnati … No. 84. And, as of today, her provisional ranking going into the quarterfinal is No. 51.
“I just have to keep it going and keep the momentum going,” she said.
She’ll have her work cut out when she meets Sevastova for their first-ever match-up.
Her first siting on the radar came last summer at the Open. She surprised Garbine Muguruza and Johanna Konta in the early rounds, then went right through to the quarterfinals. However with so much top-notch tennis over a short period, she had nothing left in the tank and lost in the quarterfinals to Caroline Wozniacki. The Latvian Sevastova ended the tournament with a ranking of No. 32. After Wimbledon this year, she reached a career high of No. 17.
“I have no idea [how I did it],” Sevastova told ESPN on Ashe after her victory over Sharapova, 5-7, 6-2, 6-2. “Playing on Ashe, it’s an amazing atmosphere. I just kept running and fighting for every ball.”
“She had tremendous use of slicing and dicing,” Brad Gilbert said, on ESPN. “Sharapova was missing by meters. She made no adjustments to her game. She was going for too much.”
But that’s Sharapova. Hard-hitting with a tenacious attitude.
Sharapova, though, should leave the Open with her head held high. After defeating the number-two seed, Simona Halep, on opening night, Sharapova was marked as a possible semifinalist. But the sheer number of matches she had to play since seemed to tax her match toughness and physical preparedness. In the third set she called the trainer twice, both times for a blister on her right hand.
Sevastova’s and Stephens’ styles are about as different as a hard court and a clay court. Stephens is a hard-hitting baseliner, with unparalleled anticipation. Sevastova relies on her wheels, as does Sloane, to keep her in points. As Gilbert said, she slices and dices. Her drop shots are well disguised and deadly, as well. Stephens will be caught off-guard when this tactic’s employed.
Sevastova has never advanced beyond a quarterfinal at any major. Stephens has a bit more experience, having reached the semifinals of The Australian Open in 2013 where she gained notoriety for beating Serena Williams. Later that year, Stephens advanced to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
Don’t miss their match-up. The contrasts will be sharp, but the competition will be balanced because they both run like the wind. And, we all know, tennis is a running game.