A tidy way to summarize a complicated person and a similarly complicated career is to simply say the following: Every person must find her own path. The same road through life is not meant for every person. We have to find what works for us, not someone else.
While the WTA Tour is not relentlessly a cookie-cutter tour, it is mostly comprised of players who try to hit the ball hard, then harder, then hardest. The very best players have touch and feel, but a lot of mid-tier players are indistinguishable from each other.
Anastasija Sevastova is not one of those players.
Sevastova has carved out a very solid career, but she has not resided in the top echelon of the women’s game. She has not made the final of a major or any of the Premier 5 / Mandatory events on tour, or even a Premier event. All six of her WTA Tour finals have come in International events, three of them in the grass warm-up event in Mallorca and two in the summer clay season event in Bucharest. Her accomplishments have been respectable but modest. She worked her way into the top 20, but has not come particularly close to the top 10. She does not have the imposing game which usually separates great players from good players, the kind of game which can create cheap points in times of need. If you can’t create cheap points on demand, you need to have the well-above-average defensive consistency of Simona Halep or Caroline Wozniacki. Sevastova does not exist on that plane — which is not a negative commentary on her, but merely a reflection of the reality that not everyone can be an extraordinarily great defensive player.
Sevastova — in the physical realm of modern professional tennis, with all its attritional elements and its hardcourt-centric identity — has had to learn the hard way how brutally demanding the sport has become. She retired in 2013 citing illnesses and injuries, in this excerpt from the WTA website:
“Dear all, I want to inform you about my latest decision – retirement from professional tennis,” Sevastova said in a statement. “Because of almost three years of continuing illnesses, injuries and the related problems, I don’t see myself carrying on in this complex sport at the highest possible level.”
Sevastova didn’t play in 10 straight majors from her retirement in 2013 through Wimbledon of 2015. She had to build back her ranking. She had to play the qualifying rounds of the 2015 U.S. Open, the first major tournament in which she participated to any degree (quallies or main draw) since the 2013 Australian Open which preceded her retirement. Sevastova, from 2012 through 2015, did not reach the main draw in 16 straight majors. The toll of the tour on her body was enormous. That’s a lot of lost time, a lot of missed paychecks, a lot of potential unfulfilled for a player who made the fourth round of the 2011 Australian Open and the quarterfinals in Beijing in 2010.
Sevastova, when she got back on the bike and returned to competition in 2015, knew she had to find a way to survive. I think of her the way I think of a small point guard in basketball, someone who has to coexist on the court with hulking players who are a foot taller and 75 to 100 pounds heavier. In today’s game, think of Isaiah Thomas (not the Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas — note the different spelling). From 20 years ago, think of John Stockton. Guys who are relatively small and won’t win slugfests have to use creativity, diversity, guile and geometry to succeed. They have to imagine ways to win which other players don’t. They have to see the game and process the game with an extra degree of acuity which gives them subtle advantages. They won’t punch you between the eyes but will create a smokescreen and get past you en route to their intended destination.
They need to make their own way.
That’s what Sevastova does, and that was on display against Sloane Stephens in Tuesday’s U.S. Open quarterfinal.
Yes, Sloane physically suffered. Yes, she wasn’t feeling well, per ESPN’s Rennae Stubbs. Yes, she yelled on court about how sunny and hot it was in Ashe Stadium. Yes, this U.S. Open has been regrettably marred by awful weather and survival-oriented outcomes on a number of occasions, the John Millman (earned) upset of Roger Federer being the most prominent example. Yet, what is Sevastova supposed to do? She had to take advantage of this chance… and she did.
She did with her teasing backhand drop shots which barely cleared the net and forced Sloane, an excellent mover caught on a bad day with low energy, to question her position on the court. Sevastova isn’t as big a puncher as Stephens, meaning that she doesn’t hit groundstrokes with the same power or authority, but like Stephens, she varies the pace on her shots and tries to make the opponent uncomfortable. When she adds the slices and droppers, the variation in her game becomes tailor-made to frustrate a more powerful opponent, especially on a day when that powerful opponent is struggling with her accuracy, with her stamina, or both, as was the case with Stephens.
Sevastova does get agitated a lot — one could say she stays agitated and never really leaves an unsettled state — but that is her way of handling negative experiences. She doesn’t hold in her feelings, she expresses them promptly. This might be off-putting to some and confusing to others, but it’s her way. It is the way which works for her.
It is the way which has lifted her to a third straight U.S. Open quarterfinal and now to a first major semifinal at age 28. It is the way which has revived a career after a multi-year injury and wellness break. It is the way she has become relevant on tour amid a forest of power merchants such as Serena, Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova, Karolina Pliskova, and others.
It’s not your way, but the athlete shouldn’t follow your way. The athlete can only follow her own way. Credit Anastasija Sevastova for doing that. At each of the last three U.S. Opens — this one more than any other — a dogged insistence on being true to one’s own self has lifted this Latvian to the greatest height of her career, with a Thursday night semifinal giving her a primetime stage she richly deserves.
Image source: Matthew Stockman