Sloane Stephens lost in the US Open quarters, but it could have been worse

NEW YORK -- Sloane Stephens, the defending US Open champion, joined an exclusive list of high seeds who faltered this year in the oppressive heat.

She was beaten Tuesday in the quarterfinals by No. 19 Anastasija Sevastova, an obviously disappointing end to what Stephens hoped would be another title-winning run. But Stephens leaves Flushing neither crushed nor embarrassed.

"I could have s--- the bed in the first round, and that would have been really bad," the No. 3 seed said after absorbing a 6-2, 6-3 beating that derailed a potential dream semifinal against Serena Williams. "So the fact that I made it to the quarterfinals and played some really good matches and I just competed as hard as I could, I mean [it's] a lot to be proud of."

It has been a tumultuous eight days at the US Open, with stars as well as yeomen struggling through matches in 90-plus degree temperatures. Just 15 hours earlier, Roger Federer admitted the stifling temperatures were too much for him to handle. The heat that generated more headlines than matches during the first few days abated, but Monday it came roaring back, and Tuesday, it held the tournament in its suffocating grasp.

Even as Stephens fought for her competitive life at Arthur Ashe Stadium, tournament officials were in the process of suspending play among juniors on the National Tennis Center's outside courts. The oppressive conditions affected both women's quarterfinalists.

Even the usually voluble crowd at Ashe was somnolent. When Stephens cracked a monstrous forehand winner to fend off a break point while serving at 0-1 in second set, it seemed to take an extra second for the spectators to process what they'd seen and muster a passable cheer.

Yet both players denied that the conditions played an outsized role in the outcome. "It was just really hot," said Stephens, who also revealed that she's been suffering from a "bad sinus infection" since Monday. She added: "You can't control the weather, can't control what the tournament is going to do. You just have to go with it. It was hot for both of us. She handled it better."

For her part, Sevastova denied that she played an abundance of drop shots to exploit the evident heat-induced sluggishness of Stephens.

"I saw she was struggling," Sevastova said. "I was struggling also a little bit. But I don't play drop shots when I see the player struggling or bending over."

Things could have gone differently for Stephens if she had converted any of the seven break points she had in the first set. She broke to get back on serve at 3-4 in the second set, only to squander a 40-15 lead and allow a break after four deuces in the ensuing game.

"When you don't play big points well, the match can get away from you." Stephens said. "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. Today was just a tough day."

The players put on brave faces, but it certainly seemed that the conditions ruined a potentially grand occasion. Sevastova might not be a household name, but she brings a lot of game to the Grand Slam table, mostly in the way of her versatility. The shot that earned her the decisive break with Stephens serving at 3-4 in the second set was a sidespin backhand slice that landed in the midcourt -- the last place anyone, including Stephens, expected to see a ball. She didn't even try for it. Nor did the crowd react, wondering, "What was that all about?"

Sevastova's creative play makes for a great matchup with Stephens, as their intense, three-set battle here last year demonstrated. "She plays a little bit different than most girls," Stephens said. "She hits a lot of drop shots, she slices, she changes it up a little bit."

Sevastova praised Stephens for her serve and movement, the weight of her shots and the quality of her spin. She said Stephens' shots take time away from opponents. "I had to be aggressive," Sevastova said.

Sevastova's game plan worked. If an American is to win the US Open women's singles title, it will be Williams or last year's runner-up, Madison Keys. But the beaten defending champ can hold her head high.

"Obviously, defending a title is very hard, very difficult," Stephens said. "I made the most of it over the last, whatever, 10 days, whatever it was. I can be proud of a lot of things, so I'm not going to dwell on it. Just keep building. There's four more tournaments left. I'm just going to try to play the rest of the season as hard as I can and hopefully have some more good results."