NEW YORK – When the US Open draw was made, it wouldn’t have been any shame at all had Maria Sharapova bowed out to world No. 2 Simona Halep in the first round.
It was a tough draw in her first Grand Slam appearance since Jan. 2016, when she tested positive for the banned substance meldonium and served a 15-month suspension.
But the 30-year-old Sharapova succeeded beyond most expectations except possibly her own. Until, it seemed, the body said no más against No. 16 seed Anastasija Sevastova Sunday in the fourth round.
Sevastova reached her second consecutive US Open quarter-final with a 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 win.
Start with a bang, end with a whimper
The best match Sharapova played was the first one against the snakebitten Halep.
It was a night match, to open the tournament, on the biggest tennis stage in the world, after waiting so long as both the French Open and Wimbledon declined to offer her wild cards. So the rush of adrenaline had to be through the roof.
It carried her through the forearm issues that had scuttled her summer plans.
After that, the Russian won her matches on grit and reputation and determination and experience even as the sleeve she had worn in practice reappeared on her right arm, and tape appeared on her left.
Still, she might have won this one, too.
Hawkeye non-challenge a turning point
Had she decided to call upon the Hawkeye challenge system on a shot of hers that hit the line, on break point at 4-5 in the the second set, Sharapova might well have won in straight sets – although we’ll never know.
She might have been preparing to face Sloane Stephens, who is mounting an impressive comeback of a completely different sort, from foot surgery, in the quarterfinals. Instead, Sevastova will try to take it one step further.
“Actually, just before my press conference I found out that the ball was in. I didn’t know that, so… Great news.
“Yeah, I mean, the umpire told me that he clearly saw it. So I went on his judgment. He kind of gave me a sign that it was … I mean, I wanted to challenge it. He said, ‘Are you sure?’ He said, ‘It was pretty long’,” Sharapova said. She was smiling/not really smiling. “I didn’t because I had one challenge. The reason I had one challenge is because I missed two. That’s on my end, not on his.”
Sharapova multiplied the unforced errors after that. She even came up a blister on her right middle finger. She said it was the first time in her career that happened.
Good run, regardless
“I think there are a lot of positives. You know, playing four matches, playing in front of a big crowd and fans. Just competing, you know, being in that competitive environment. That’s what I missed. You can’t replicate that anywhere, especially at a Grand Slam. So for me to come out, Monday night (against Halep) was a special night for me. I will always remember it. I’m very grateful to have had that opportunity to bring it,” she said.
“As I said, I came in not playing a lot of matches. We all know that. Didn’t have much practice. Obviously always disappointing to be on the losing end of things. But, yeah, I mean, reflecting back on the week, I can be happy.”
For Sevastova, who was a quarterfinalist in New York a year ago, it was the equivalent of a title defense. At the very least, a points defense.
Her ability to run, change the pace and not give an inconsistent Sharapova some rhythm to get back on track were the keys.
“If she hits you off the court, then you say, congratulations. But, again, I try to play smart. Sometimes it’s an advantage, sometimes not,” Sevastova said.
“When they’re hitting, they’re also making mistakes So if you move well, if you mix it up, you have always a chance.”
Interestingly, in the wake of some other WTA Tour players’ objections to the special treatment Sharapova has received since her return from suspension, Sevastova had no such extra motivation.
Only respect for Sharapova
“I think some players have that. But I don’t have that. I have great respect for her. I mean, I was 14 years old, I was playing under-14, at a tournament, and she was winning Wimbledon the same day, basically,” Sevastova said. “Yeah, I was confident. I was feeling it. But still you have to beat her.”
Sharapova said the focus the next few months will be to build back up her base of match play and endurance. With only five tournaments since April – since Jan. 2016, in fact – there is work to do.
She plans to start at the Premier event in Beijing next month, for which she has received a wild card.
“I want to play. I just want to play matches. There’s no secret recipe to that. … The good thing is I know I’m not going to be in an MRI machine tomorrow. I think that’s a pretty big positive. Had a few of those in the summer,” Sharapova said.
“Look, three-set matches are challenging. I love being part of them. There’s an element of concentration, focus, physicality that goes into all of it.
“There’s no doubt that not playing those matches certainly cost me today. I didn’t feel like I was thinking a little bit too much and not playing by instinct as maybe I would be in those situations.”
Ranking still a stumbling block
Sharapova’s ranking should clock in at exactly No. 100 after the US Open. That’s still a long way from her getting into the bigger events on her own. And at this point, with the six-week deadline cutoff, that will remain true for the rest of the season regardless of how she does.
It’s going in the right direction. But when you look at the rocket that has been Stephens’ rankings rise this summer upon her return after 11 months away, you can see how this summer was an opportunity lost.
The final question remains: with Sharapova and Shapovalov now out of the tournament, who will get those coveted Arthur Ashe Stadium stadiums slots every second day?
(We kid; there are options that don’t begin with “Sha” and end with “ov(a)”)