In beating Coco Gauff in the first round of the US Open, 6-3, 5-7, 6-4, 31st-seeded Anastasija Sevastova vividly revealed how the mental aspect of tennis has two dimensions. Sevastova’s asset is her tactical acumen, an exceptional aptitude for varying pace, spin and direction. Never has the Sevastova arsenal been more visible than in New York. In 2017, Sevastova deflated Maria Sharapova. The next year came a similar dissection of defending champion Sloane Stephens, Sevastova going on to reach the semis.
But being the smart one doesn’t always make you the mentally tough one. Serving with a lead of 6-3, 4-2, Sevastova opened and closed that pivotal game with double-faults. Rapidly, her emotions went dark, the 30-year old Latvian entering such a negative space that she lost five of the next six games—and upon losing that second set, fired a ball up into the stands.
Said Sevastova, “I was risking a lot. But, yeah, she's moving so well, it's tough to finish the point. She sees the ball. She hits amazing backhand. Forehand for sure could be better. Still, it's uncomfortable to play her.”
As we’ve seen in little more than a year, the 16-year-old Gauff has come to thrive in these situations, her passion for competition visible and compelling as she draws energy from the crowd. When Gauff took a 15-40 lead on Sevastova’s serve in the opening game in the third, she appeared to have all the momentum on her side. Of course, what she didn’t have was a crowd.
Prior to that point, it was only Gauff’s fighting spirit that had kept her in the match. Her tennis had been scratchy, most notably in the form of 12 double-faults in the first two sets. Her toss quite errant, Gauff’s confidence in her usually fine serve was missing in action. In tandem with that came numerous errors off the Gauff forehand, a shot currently less potent and stable than her sizzling backhand.
Credit also the subtle and dangerous venom issued from the Sevastova racquet. Her slice backhand consistently put Gauff in awkward positions, be it mid-rally or via drop shots. She also laced her share of big forehands, got in 65 percent of her first serves, and won 18 of 27 points at the net.
For all that, though, as difficult as Sevastova had made it for Gauff over the first two sets, the American stood a point from going up a break in the decisive set. Sevastova appeared to be suffering from the malaise of the clever player: an ability to cut, but not the skill to kill. Two weeks ago in Lexington, Gauff had overtaken a similar disruptor, Ons Jabeur, also from a set and a break down, running away with the third set, 6-1. Why not again?
But Sevastova fought back in that first game and held. Her cloud began to lift.
“I just had to stay solid and play better on my service games in the third set,” said Sevastova. “That's what I did. Yeah, I thought I will have a chance at some point.”
Each player’s quality level increased. The second set had featured seven service breaks; through the first nine games of the third, not a one. Gauff struck a few fine serves and, per usual, kept her cool throughout the rallies.
At 4-all, Sevastova hit two aces. The crispness that had abandoned her at the end of the second set was back in full force. In the next game, she went after the Gauff forehand like a dentist hunting a cavity, eliciting a trio of errors that earned her two match points at 15-40. On the first, Gauff showed her tremendous competitive spirit in the form of a wide 101 m.p.h. service winner. On the second, Sevastova netted a forehand.
Gauff soon held an ad for 5-all, but Sevastova replied with an inside-out forehand winner. Again at match point, Sevastova flagged a second serve return long. But at deuce, the Latvian laced an untouchable down-the-line backhand to earn her fourth match point. What came next was anti-climatic but revealing: a Gauff forehand into the net.
Once again, Sevastova had taken down a player of prominence.
This was all rather jarring. Gauff had previously played three Grand Slams and each time made major headlines, for everything from game to grit to poise. No one will ever forget her incredibly gracious moment last year in New York when she’d lost to Naomi Osaka on Saturday evening and then addressed a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium. Today, though, Gauff lost on the opening Monday, millions around the world taking it all in remotely.
Said Gauff, “Right now losses hurt. I mean, I'm disappointed. I'm going to go back to practice tomorrow and hopefully do my best in doubles, then prepare for singles in Europe.”
It was a day at the office Gauff would like to forget, but as her sharp tennis mind has already shown so often, it’s certain to be one she’ll learn from.