Sloane Stephens remains proud of her efforts this fortnight but rues her missed opportunities as she saw her US Open title defence come to an end at the hands of Anastasija Sevastova in the quarter-finals on Tuesday.
Playing at noon in scorching weather in Queens, New York, the American lost 6-2, 6-3 to Sevastova, who was appearing in the quarter-finals here for a third consecutive year.
Sevastova made history as the first Latvian woman to make the US Open last-four and next faces Serena Williams or Karolina Pliskova, who play their quarter-final on Tuesday night.
The third-seeded Stephens was unable to convert any of the seven break points she created in the opening set and was broken twice to give her 19th-seeded Latvian opponent a one-set lead.
The conditions were brutal and the tournament announced that junior play was suspended because of the heat and wouldn’t resume until the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature reading went below 32.2 degrees Celsius. Senior play somehow continued.
The defending champion was broken at the start of the second set and despite breaking back, she found herself down 1-4.
The American still tried to claw her way back, and saved break point while trying to level the set for 4-all, but Sevastova set down a clutch drop shot winner to break again and open up a 5-3 advantage.
Stephens saved two match points in the next game but Sevastova sealed the win on her third opportunity as a Stephens backhand landed in the net.
The world No. 3, who has been suffering from a sinus infection for the past week, refused to cite illness as an excuse and chalks up the loss to just it being a bad day at the office.
“When you don’t play big points well, the match can get away from you. I think that’s what happened today. 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,” said the 25-year-old Stephens.
“I think today I just really couldn’t get anything to connect.
“Mentally, physically, I just wasn’t connecting. It just was a really tough day. The heat doesn’t make it any more fun.
“Nothing was wrong with me before the match. I was excited to play, happy to get out there and compete. Today was a bad day. I wish I could have played better. The better player won.”
The Extreme Heat Policy was in effect on Tuesday which means the women get a 10-minute break after the second set if the match goes to a third. Men get the break after the third set.
Roger Federer said the stifling humid conditions on Monday night during his four-set defeat to John Millman meant that he “couldn’t get air. There was no circulation at all”.
Asked to elaborate on how tough the conditions were, Stephens said: “It was just really hot. You can’t control the weather, can’t control what the tournament is going to do. You just have to go with it.
“Unfortunate that I played first match at 12:00 and it was so extremely hot, but it was hot for both of us. She handled it better. Yeah, sometimes it happens like that.”
Despite her defeat, Stephens is pleased with how she handled the occasion of being the reigning champion in New York and with no points to defend for the rest of the year (she went on an eight-match losing streak after winning the 2017 US Open), she is looking forward to potentially moving up in the rankings and securing a spot in the WTA Finals in Singapore.
“The fact that I made it to the quarter-finals and played some really good matches and I just competed as hard as I could, I mean, a lot to be proud of,” said Stephens.
She added: “I hope that I can go to Asia and win some more matches and hopefully make the year end and hopefully keep going as far as I can.”
Rafael Nadal has faced off with Dominic Thiem on 10 previous occasions but on Tuesday, the pair will meet on hard courts for the first time, with a place in the US Open semi-finals on the line.
So far, their rivalry has been contested exclusively on clay, with Nadal leading the Austrian 7-3 head-to-head.
Tuesday’s clash will provide a new chapter for the duo and Nadal is looking forward to the challenge.
“Thiem is more of a specialist on clay, and so am I, so it [playing him on hard court] is not something favorable for me,” the US Open defending champion told Spanish press on Sunday following his four-set win over Nikoloz Basilashvili.
“We know each other well, we know each other’s games well. Whoever plays with higher intensity and higher adrenaline on Tuesday, will probably have more options to win.”
This is the first time since 2011 that Nadal has made the quarter-finals or better at each of the four Grand Slams of the season. The Mallorcan lost in the Melbourne quarters, won Roland Garros for an 11th time, and fell to Novak Djokovic in the Wimbledon semis this year.
“Last year I was nearly one point away from doing that too,” said Nadal, referring to his close five-setter with Gilles Muller in the Wimbledon fourth round last season. “But anyway it’s a good stat, it’s something positive, it’s something that shows I’ve been competitive on all surfaces in practically all the weeks I’ve played this year, and I’m happy about it.”
On Tuesday, Thiem ended a six-match losing streak in Grand Slam fourth rounds not played on clay by posting just his second victory in eight meetings with last year’s runner-up Kevin Anderson in straight sets.
Nadal was tested in his last two rounds, edging past Karen Khachanov in four close sets in round three, before dropping a set to Basilashvili on Sunday.
Asked what he thinks he needs to improve in his game moving forward, the three-time US Open champion said: “I think a little bit the speed of my cross-court. My forehand down-the-line is working well, which is a very important shot for me. What’s not working as well [as my down-the-line] is the opening ball towards the backhand of the opponent.
“I’ve hit very good down-the-line forehands but too many of them are right on the edge, with very little space. When I open more the court towards my opponent’s backhand, I have more margin to hit my down-the-line forehand and my possibilities increase much more.
“And, above all, the drive is better in general. Today, I served well at certain moments, so I think I’m on the right track. I have to try and consolidate that good feeling I had on serve in the second set and I finished serving well as well.”
Nadal has lots of respect for Thiem, he is the only one who has managed to trouble the Spaniard on clay in the past two seasons.
“He’s a fantastic player,” Nadal said of the Austrian.
“He’s a very powerful player. He’s a great guy. Very good relationship with him. Happy for him that he’s in quarter-finals here. Last year he lost a very tough match against Del Potro here.
“Yeah, in some way he deserves to be where he is. Gonna be a tough one. He’s very powerful player, and, yeah, he knows how to play these kind of matches. I need to play my best match of the tournament if I want to keep having chances to stay in the tournament.”
Thiem is aware of what he did well to defeat Nadal in the past but maintains that nobody’s game matches up well against the world No. 1.
“I think that I have very powerful ground strokes, and I can even hurt him with them. But the key is to play really fast and powerful. But on the same time, not make too many mistakes,” said the 24-year-old Thiem.
“Yeah, I did it sometimes against him, but it’s a risky game style also, because it can happen that I make too many mistakes and then it looks black.”
Elina Svitolina feels she must go back to the drawing board and make adjustments to her game, the Ukrainian told reporters after her US Open fourth-round exit.
Svitolina, who is still searching for a maiden Grand Slam semi-final, lost 6-3, 1-6, 6-0 to Anastasija Sevastova, who is through to her third consecutive US Open quarter-final.
The No. 7 seed could not hide her disappointment following the conclusion of her Grand Slam season, and believes some changes need to be done regarding her game after the significant weight loss she underwent earlier this season.
“I think there is few things I have to sit down with my team and think about. I think physically I have to get much stronger since, yeah, there have been a change in my body,” Svitolina said on Sunday.
“I think it takes a little bit more time than I expected to get used to it, because I have to change a little bit my game style. Because playing the same way as I was playing last year, I know my body is not allowing me to show my best.
“I have to think what I have to do differently. For the moment, it’s tough to say, because after the match you are sad and disappointed.”
Svitolina has won three titles in Brisbane, Dubai and Rome this season but at the majors, she lost to Elise Mertens in the Australian Open quarters, fell to Mihaela Buzarnescu in the French Open third round, and lost her opener at Wimbledon to Tatjana Maria.
“I would say it’s average,” said Svitolina of her 2018 Grand Slam results.
“I was expecting a little bit better results, especially Roland Garros and here, as well. But I lost to the players that were like playing really amazing tennis against me and was tough matches. So, yeah, it’s disappointing, but I have to look forward and, yeah, just go back on court and put the hours of work.”
The season is not over yet for Svitolina though and she is already thinking about securing a spot in the WTA Finals in Singapore.
The 23-year-old is fifth in the Race to Singapore and is looking to make her second consecutive appearance at the top-eight season finale.
“I showed good tennis [this hard-court swing]. Yeah, no, I’m moving forward step by step, little by little, which is good, but I want to improve, I want to be better. It takes time. I’m ready for hard work. And Asian swing, as well. My goal is to play in Singapore, so I’m going to do everything what it takes to be there.”