Suarez Navarro delivers Sharapova her first loss under US Open lights

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WATCH—Daily Mix from Day 8 at the US Open:

NEW YORK—It was supposed to be star time at the US Open on Monday night. This was the final session of a holiday weekend, with longtime evening stalwarts Maria Sharapova and Roger Federer on a glitzy double-bill. These were the moments Sharapova in particular lived for; she brought an unprecedented and frankly incredible 23-0 record in Open night matches with her.

But just when we thought we were in for a show, a tennis match broke out. Sharapova’s opponent, Carla Suarez Navarro, saw to that. The Spanish veteran, who stands just 5'4" and probably averages less than a fist-pump per match, is one of the WTA’s anti-stars, and her between-point amble is an anti-strut. CSN can be up 5-0 or down 0-5 and you won’t know it.

There was little question that she had enough game to stay with Sharapova. Suarez Navarro has one of the sport’s most glorious one-handed backhands, she has cracked the Top 10, and she reached the quarterfinals at the US Open in 2013. The question, as Chris Evert put it on ESPN, was, “Her nerve—will that hold up?”

There was some reason to wonder. Monday was Suarez Navarro’s 30th birthday; in 2013, she lost to Serena Williams 6-0, 6-0 when she turned 25 here, and last year she went out to Serena’s sister Venus on the same day. Would CSN hold up better under the bright lights this time? The answer came quickly. She broke early, went up 4-1, and wowed the crowd with the drive, depth and spin on her one-hander. The action at her end of the court was a lot more entertaining than what was happening on the other side.


Photos by Anita Aguilar

Sharapova started the match without her serve. She double-faulted three times in one game, and finished the match with eight; eventually, she had to resort to spinning the first ball in. She was a step behind from the baseline as well. Three times in the opening set, Suarez Navarro ripped a shot crosscourt that forced Sharapova to throw up a desperate, defensive lob with her left hand.

Sharapova rallied late in the first set, and the momentum seemed to be just a shot or two from swinging in her direction. But she couldn’t find the shot she needed, and she couldn’t defend her serve. While Sharapova was able to break Suarez Navarro three times, CSN returned the favor six times. When Sharapova reached break point at 2-2 in the second set, it looked for a moment as if the match might turn in her favor. The two smacked a series of crosscourt backhands at each other—until Sharapova blinked and sent a ball long. CSN’s one-hander had held up better than Sharapova’s two-hander, and she never trailed after that.

“I tried to be aggressive, be solid, fighting every time,” said Suarez Navarro, who finished with a more-than-solid-enough 15 winners and 15 errors. More important, she did what stars are supposed to do: she won the big points. Sharapova created the same number of break points as CSN—eight—but CSN converted on twice as many.

The loss brings Sharapova’s Grand Slam season to a disappointing close. In her first full year since coming back from a drug suspension, she lost in the third round at the Australian Open, the quarterfinals at the French Open, the first round at Wimbledon and now the fourth round at the US Open. The only time she has found any sort of groove in 2018 was on clay, when she made the semis in Rome and the quarters in Paris. Otherwise, vintage victories have tended to be followed quickly by erratic and subpar performances like the one we saw today.

From her serve to her net game to her forehand, Sharapova doesn’t consistently hit the ball as cleanly as she once did. On Monday, she made twice as many unforced errors as winners. At 31, Sharapova is still a proud competitor, and most of us assumed she would mount a comeback; but when the time seemed right, she faltered. That’s largely been the story of her post-comeback career so far. Sharapova says she’s only looking forward, but the next major isn’t until January, in Melbourne; three months after that, she turns 32.

It was star time in New York on Monday: while Suarez Navarro’s shone brightly, Sharapova saw hers get a little dimmer.


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