NEW YORK—Open the kitchen drawer, regard your utensils and you will begin to sense what happened during an intriguing third-round match between 19th-seeded Anastasija Sevastova and a past US Open semifinalist, Ekaterina Makarova.
Consider Sevastova a knife, keen to caress and carve, be it a gently rolled topspin forehand or, most disruptive of all, a slice backhand that she will intermittently feather through the court and, even more frequently, drop shot.
Makarova is the fork. At her best, this left-handed Russian is able to stab her way through opponents with piercing, flat drives, reasonable accuracy on the serve, and volleys made sharper by her considerable doubles expertise—three Grand Slams alongside her fellow Russian, Elena Vesnina, including the 2014 US Open.
In this case, knife cut through fork, Sevastova taking two hours and two minutes to win this match, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, an effort in persistence and versatility that would bring a smile to the face of a tennis connoisseur—and a look of befuddlement from the vanquished.
As early as when she served at 2-3 in the first set, Sevastova trotted out an artful platter, fighting off break points with three winners—lob, ace, forehand down-the-line passing shot. But at that point, it was Makarova’s utilitarian qualities that carried the day, the Russian first tracking down a drop shot and crushing a volley winner, then closing out the game with a thunderous down-the-line backhand that landed just inside both lines to give her a 4-2 lead. And even though Sevastova broke back in the next game, she played a miserable game at 4-5, feebly netting a forehand at 15 to give Makarova the first set.
It was difficult to tell who was aided more by the shift in weather, the conditions now 20 degrees cooler than the oven-like heat of the previous three days. Even harder to discern was whether this year’s US Open courts, slightly slower than prior years, were aiding Makarova’s ability to hit through the court or Sevastova’s skill at absorbing pace.
The worm began to turn in the second set. Lacking the linear knockout power of Makarova, Sevastova instead must work her way around the edges of the court. Her game is designed less to conquer than to coax. Consider Sevastova a sadistic acupuncturist. Recall that this was the same player who last year here beat Maria Sharapova, and in the quarterfinals put eventual champion Sloane Stephens through her toughest test of the tournament, only dropping that match in a third-set tiebreaker.
Never one to attempt to outslug an opponent, Sevastova throughout the entire match relied on an old school play—drop shot and lob—that could best be viewed as long-term investment spending. Makarova won her share of points responding to that troublesome combo, but over time, as the match wore on, she became just fatigued enough to provide Sevastova with increasing openings in space, time, fitness. Still, after Sevastova won the second set, 6-1, the stage appeared set for a hearty battle.
Not so. The score meant little in the face of all the pinpricks Sevastova had applied to Makarova. With Sevastova serving at 2-2, 30-30 in the third, Makarova was pacing around the court uncomfortably. The match was dead even. But deep within, Makarova had toppled. There came a 15-ball rally, Sevastova by now easily handling Makarova’s power and eliciting a backhand error. On the next point, Makarova stumbled badly to a forehand to drop the game.
There followed a trainer visit. Technically, the trainer wrapped Makarova’s right thigh. Had it been possible, she might also have applied something to Makarova’s head, for much damage had been inflicted there too. From 2-2, she dropped the next four games. Match point, Makarova serving at 2-5, 15-40, came in the form of a Sevastova backhand drop shot winner—little more than a slight twist of the blade.