Slapping her thigh in frustration, Sloane Stephens shoved the air and shouted in disgust after spraying another shot.
On a sticky day, Stephens was so befuddled by Anastasija Sevastova’s sly spins, she looked like a woman swinging at shadows.
A clever Sevastova slipped Stephens’ best drives and confounded her with counter strikes and finesse knocking the US Open champion out, 6-2, 6-3, and making history in the process.
Sevastova snapped Stephens’ 11-match Flushing Meadows winning streak becoming the first Latvian woman to reach the US Open semifinals.
Contesting her third consecutive US Open quarterfinal, Sevastova withstood sweltering conditions, a speedy opponent and pro-Stephens crowd masterfully charging into her first Grand Slam semifinal in her 23rd major.
“I think it was very physical today,” Sevastova told ESPN’s Rennae Stubbs afterward. “It was tough to play. It’s so hot in here. I think the first set was very important and I just kept fighting. We showed some nerves in the end, but it’s normal for the semifinals for the US Open.”
The third-seeded Stephens, who said she’s been battling a sinus infection, struggled to match Sevastova’s energy and intensity.
“When you don’t play big points well the match can get away from you,” Stephens said in a raspy voice during her post-match presser. “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.”
Stephens squandered all seven break points she created in the first set and finished just two of nine on break-point chances against a savvy opponent.
The 28-year-old Sevastova has broken serve a tournament-best 28 times and will need a sharp return game when she faces either 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams or eighth-seeded Karolina Pliskova for a place in the final.
“I’m going to play doubles tomorrow. That’s my preparation,” Sevastova said. “I’m going to watch the match. We’ll see who will win. I don’t know. It’s going to be a close match, I think. I hope I will enjoy it, playing semifinals. It’s not every day you play semifinals of a Grand Slam.
Either way, against Serena or Karolina, it’s going to be a tough match. They play aggressive. They serve big. I need to find some solutions. Some drop shots.”
It was redemption for Sevastova, who blew a 3-1 third-set lead in the 2017 US Open quarterfinals bowing to Stephens, 6-3, 3-6, 7-6 (4). Last month, Stephens swept Sevastova, 6-2, 6-2, in the Montreal quarterfinals.
The woman who retired from tennis for about 20 months due to back and muscular injuries has been revitalized since returning to the pro circuit in January, 2015.
It’s as if stepping away from the sport helped Sevastova see the game from a fresh perspective and embrace it with a new vitality upon her return.
Variety, fitness and finesse were keys to Sevastova’s second straight win over a Top 10-seeded opponent following her 6-3, 1-6, 6-0 triumph over seventh-seeded Elina Svitolina in the fourth round. She deployed a devious drop shot drawing 27 unforced errors from Stephens and showed strong transition skills winning 11 of 12 trips to net.
“I played not so good in Montreal and she played amazing in Montreal,” Sevastova said. “So I knew it would be a different match today. I just stick to my game plan, move well and take my chances.”
In the early stages, the champion used her forehand to open the court and create break-point opportunities.
A stubborn Sevastova grew stronger passing each test.
Though her forehand isn’t quite as stinging as Stephens’, the Latvian can hit every shot, moves well and shows shrewd court sense.
Mixing the locations and spins on serve, Sevastova staved off four break points grinding through a gripping 10-and-a-half minute hold for 2-1.
Two games later, Stephens posed pressure again.
And Sevastova passed the stress test with a discombobulating assortment of spins and slices denying three more break points for 4-1.
A sloppy Stephens faced triple set point when Sevastova stepped inside the baseline and looped a topspin forehand crosscourt snatching a one-set lead after 41 minutes.
The third-seeded Stephens is one of the speediest women in the sport, but Sevastova was matching her movement and hitting more accuracy on the run.
‘ “She’s a great player,” Stephens said of Sevastova. Obviously she plays a little bit different than most girls. She hits a lot of dropshots, she slices, she changes it up a little bit.
“It’s always a difficult match, but I thought she played solid today. Obviously the better player won. It just was a bad day.”
Squeezing a running backhand pass in holding to start the second set, Sevastova immediately cornered Stephens in a triple break-point hole.
Mom Sybil raised a pair of clenched fists, trying to pump her daughter, but Stephens’ signature shot was scrawling errors.
Slapping a forehand into the middle of the net, Stephens gifted the break and a 2-0 second-set lead.
Fifty-five minutes into torrid conditions, Stephens showed fire. A pair of rousing forehands earned her first break punctuated with a pair of furious double fist pumpts.
Each time Stephens made steps of progress, Sevastova stretched the gap.
Targeting the American’s backhand she banged out errors breaking back then ladled an exquisite backhand drop shot that helped her stream through a love hold backing up the break for 2-0.
Shouting in frustration toward her box at one point, Stephens blew off some steam in the heat then burned through a break at love getting back on serve at 3-4.
Unwilling to attack her first serve, Stephens was spinning in her first delivery, but still dodged a break point.
Finesse is a Sevastova strength: she slid a drop shot winner for a second break point.
That dropper was slick, a successive backhand dropper was pure magic giving Sevastova a fifth break point.
Serving with new balls, Sevastova gained triple match point when Stephens poked a backhand into net.
On her third match point, an emotional Sevastova closed as a weary Stephens netted a backhand ending a one hour, 23-minute encounter and extending an epic journey.
When she returned from retirement, Sevastova’s only goal was to crack the Top 100. Now, she’s one win from a major final.
“I was thinking, okay, maybe a couple of years, play top 100. Enjoy the game,” Sevastova said. “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. So try to keep it low and try to enjoy it.”