Anastasija Sevastova’s remarkable comeback story has taken her from retirement to the semi-finals of the US Open in less than four years.
Sevastova walked away from tennis in 2013 due to continuous struggles with injuries and illnesses but returned to the sport in 2015 and has been going from strength to strength ever since.
The 28-year-old, who made history on Tuesday, defeating Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-3 to become the first Latvian woman to reach the US Open semi-finals, showcased incredible shot variety against the American, and stood her ground when she needed to.
It was a rematch of their US Open quarter-final from last year and it was Sevastova’s third straight appearance in the final-eight in New York.
“I think it was third time lucky. But if I would lose I would also be proud of myself. Three times quarters. It’s not happening every year or every day,” said Sevastova after her triumph.
“Tough loss last year. But every loss you learn something, and I was okay if we would play three sets. Yeah. I was also thinking about that match at 4-1 in the second set, but it happened. I was still proud of this match. I think it was a great match last year, and now look what happened now?”
Sevastova retired from tennis when she was 23 but the two-year break she took from tennis is now looking like a blessing in disguise. She has won two titles since her return, in Mallorca in 2017 and Bucharest this season, and hit a career-high ranking of 15 11 months ago.
She’s now one win away from being a Grand Slam finalist.
Anastasija Sevastova defeats Stephens 6-2, 6-3 to reach her first Grand Slam semifinal!
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 4, 2018
“I’m relieved that the match is over in this heat. Yeah, how do you feel? You feel happy. I think you need some time then to look, to look at this journey. It was an amazing journey, this three, four years,” said Sevastova.
“Right now you’re so in, you’re in the tournament, you’re playing next tournament next week, and you don’t feel it, you know. You think, oh, but in the end it’s amazing, yeah? You can’t believe, yeah. So after I stop at some point I will look at it and I will be proud of myself, for sure.”
Asked what kind of goals she set for herself when she decided to return to tennis, Sevastova said: “I had done not many goals. Maybe top 100. I was thinking, okay, maybe a couple of years, play top 100. Enjoy the game.
“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.
“But you have to appreciate it more, I think. You have to see that what you’re doing, it’s like a privilege here, yeah. So try to keep it low and try to, yeah, enjoy it.”
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.”