Saturday 24 February 2018

Sharapova's journey ends as she fails to live up to star billing

Maria Sharapova grimaces as she stretches to make a return during her defeat by Anastasija Sevastova in the US Open. Photo: Getty Images
Maria Sharapova grimaces as she stretches to make a return during her defeat by Anastasija Sevastova in the US Open. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Newman

At least there will be no more complaints about Maria Sharapova being given top billing.

The 30-year-old Russian was handed the prime-time Sunday afternoon slot in Arthur Ashe Stadium but for once failed to live up to the occasion as Anastasija Sevastova won 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 to become the first player through to the women's quarter-finals.

No matter how much Caroline Wozniacki and others might have complained about what they saw as Sharapova's preferential treatment, there could be no doubt that the former world No 1, in the absence of Serena Williams, had been the star turn in the women's singles this year.

Once again the vast majority of the 23,000-strong crowd in the biggest arena in tennis got behind Sharapova, who needed a wild card to play here following her return this year from a 15-month ban for a drugs offence.

The five-time grand slam champion appeared to be on course for a place in the last eight for the first time in five years when she won the first set, but Sevastova held firm and increasingly troubled her opponent with her subtle variations of spin and pace.

Sharapova made 50 unforced errors and was unable to match her opponent's consistency.

Sevastova's smooth style contrasted with Sharapova's more mechanical ball-striking. The 27-year-old Latvian hit some beautiful sliced backhands, played some killing drop shots and moved across the court with elegant ease.

The world No 17 has won the first two titles of her career this year and enjoyed her best Grand Slam run at this tournament 12 months ago when she knocked out Garbine Muguruza and Johanna Konta en route to the quarter-finals. Having retired in 2013 with injury problems, Sevastova returned to competition two years later.

Mistakes

Sharapova quickly took charge of the opening set. She broke in the fourth game and was not in any trouble on her own serve until the seventh. Serving at 40-30, she was broken after three successive mistakes. At 5-6, however, the Russian broke again in emphatic fashion to take the set.

Sevastova, nevertheless, was in no mood to fold in the second set. She broke serve in the third game, stood her ground when Sharapova threatened to break back in the eighth and levelled the match with two successive service winners at 5-4.

The momentum of the match had been quick to change and Sharapova won only one point in losing the first three games of the decider, after which she had treatment for what appeared to be a blister on her right hand.

Sevastova wobbled when she dropped serve on a double fault in the fourth game but quickly regained her composure.

Sharapova saved three match points when Sevastova served at 5-2, but the Latvian completed her victory with a service winner after two and a quarter hours.

In the men's draw, the spotlight has never been on Pablo Carreno Busta as it has been here but the 26-year-old Spaniard came through his latest test in emphatic style.

The highest-ranked player left in the bottom half of the draw barely put a foot wrong in beating Canada's Denis Shapovalov 7-6, 7-6, 7-6 to secure his place in the quarter-finals.

Being a tennis player in the era of Rafael Nadal - not to mention David Ferrer, Feliciano Lopez, Fernando Verdasco and a host of other successful Spaniards - has meant that Carreno Busta (26) has flown under the radar, but the world No 19 has won three titles in the last 12 months.

Having reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final at this summer's French Open, Carreno Busta has been thrust into the limelight here in the absence of some more illustrious names.

After the withdrawal of Andy Murray, the three players in his half of the draw who were ranked above him - Alexander Zverev, Marin Cilic and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga - were all out by the end of the second round.

Shapovalov is ranked just N0 69 in the world but has emerged this summer as an outstanding talent.

The 18-year-old beat Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro in reaching the semi-finals of last month's Montreal Masters, won three matches in qualifying to reach the main draw here.

Explosive

With his explosive style, attacking game and outgoing character, Shapovalov has quickly become a favourite with the fans. John McEnroe, commentating on Eurosport, said the Canadian reminded him of himself at the same age.

Shapovalov was aggressive from the start. The Canadian loves to go for his shots and is not afraid to attack the net when the opportunity presents itself. He hit more winners (54 to Carreno Busta's 25).

For all his exciting talent, however, Shapovalov needs to learn when to go for his shots and when to bide his time. He made 55 unforced errors to his opponent's 29. On the key points in particular he can pull the trigger too early.

Carreno Busta, in contrast, chose his moments when to attack, though his heavy ball-striking regularly drove Shapovalov back. The difference between the two men was summed up by the three tie-breaks, in each of which Carreno Busta was as solid as a rock, while Shapovalov was too impetuous.

Still, as Shapovalov left the court he milked the crowd's prolonged applause. He will be back for sure. (© Independent News Service)

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