The red carpet laid down for Maria Sharapova at the US Open has ran out, after she was beaten by the relatively unheralded No 16 seed Anastasija Sevastova.
Granted a wildcard and given residency on the main Arthur Ashe Stadium, Sharapova was beaten 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 by the Latvian, who now faces resurgent American Sloane Stephens.
For all the arguments about her treatment here, the cosy accommodation of someone coming back from a doping suspension, the 30 year-old Russian continued to provide the kind of drama and attention that season’s final Grand Slam wanted.
Maria Sharapova’s Grand Slam return has ended in the fourth round of the US Open
Anastasija Sevastova defeated the former world No 1 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 at Flushing Meadows
Defeat ends Sharapova’s first Grand Slam tournament since her return from a drugs ban
This was another gripping contest, but ultimately Sharapova paid for her general lack of matchplay coming into this event and the exertion required to get through earlier rounds, which included the dismissal of No 2 seed Simona Halep.
She contributed 51 unforced errors to her demise, although her strategy of going for broke and pounding down the winners that accompanied them nearly paid off.
What is clear is that if starts to string together a proper run of tournaments without her body breaking down then it will not be long before she is back, or at least very close to, the top of women’s tennis.
The former world No 1 ran out of steam against Sevastova as her lack of matches showed
For now she is likely to emerge from this fortnight with a ranking almost dead on 100, which will ensure that she does not need the assistance of a wildcard to make the Australian Open in January, where she might battle with Serena Williams.
It has been a big few days for births in tennis, Williams and Novak Djokovic welcoming baby daughters into the world. The full rebirth of Sharapova’s career awaits more than five months on from her return, but she has proved that she remains a formidable opponent.
With that earsplitting shriek she is an intimidating presence, and it was much to Sevastova’s credit that she did not buckle inside what is the sport’s biggest stadium. Her concentration just about survived the Russian’s long toilet break at the end of the second set and treatment for blisters in the decider.
In her and Jelena Ostapenko the tennis backwater of Latvia – ironically the birthplace of Meldonium – has two very impressive players.
‘The first set was very close and she played unbelievable through the first and second set,’ said Sevastova. ‘I kept fighting and running every ball down.’
Sharapova departed with 51 unforced errors in the match as she lost to the No 16 seed
It was on this same day and at the same stage a year previously that she had stopped Jo Konta in her tracks when the British player looked set to reach the last eight.
A 4-1 Sharapova lead in the first set became 5-5 as the Latvian neatly scurried around the back, and she was looking in the ascendancy as the Russian once again racked up a high count of outright winners and unforced errors.
What separates Sharapova from so many of her peers, and which has survived the various hiatuses in her career, is her ability as a pure competitor who can focus on the next point, turning her back on her opponent to reset every time.
With the Latvian having looked increasingly confident, Sharapova forced a confident hold and then took advantage of the awkward 5-6 game to break to fifteen and bag the first set.
Sevastova is in the last eight for the second successive year having beaten Jo Konta in 2016
A nimble counter puncher whose retrieving would sometimes have Andy Murray purring his approval, Sevastova rebounded impressively to take advantage of Sharapova’s error count and broke for 2-1 in the second set.
She came close to extending that lead to 5-2, only for the Russian to spectacularly improvise with two lefthanded forehands in the same rally in the sixth game in order to retrieve the deft lobs of her opponent.
Nonetheless Sevastova’s dropshots, a tactic that seemed beyond Halep, was paying off and Sharapova, whose drive volleys were especially erratic, was being made to do plenty of running;.
Having sealed the second set, Sevastova had to wait for more than six minutes while the Russian took a comfort break. It did not disrupt the Latvian’s rhythm as she raced to a 3-0 lead, at which point Sharapova summoned the trainer on to treat a blister on her right hand.
The Latvian then lost concentration and fell back to 3-2, but impressively regathered herself to deliver the final blows.