ZHUHAI, China -- No.5 seed Anastasija Sevastova kicked off her debut appearance at the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy on Wednesday with a comprehensive win over reigning US Open champion Sloane Stephens, 7-5, 6-3.
In the first round-robin match in the Camellia Group, the Latvian now sits with a 1-0 record, after avenging her US Open quarterfinal loss to Stephens. The American squeaked past Sevastova in a final-set tiebreak en route to her maiden Grand Slam title, but Sevastova has now evened their head-to-head at one win apiece.
"It was also a tough match today," Sevastova told the media, when she was asked about her matches against Stephens this year. "I was fighting until the end. I think I closed the match pretty well. For sure, the most important thing was the first set, it was up and down."
Sevastova ended the match with 23 winners, including 3 aces, and won over 71 percent of the points on her first serve. Stephens was not nearly as effective on her first serve, losing slightly more than half of those points. The American also had 28 unforced errors, outpacing her 19 winners.
Stephens has now suffered her third consecutive loss, and, in fact, has not won a set since her run in New York ended in triumph two months ago. She must beat the other Camellia Group combatant, Barbora Strycova of the Czech Republic, if she is to have any hope to claim another title this year.
"Right off the bat, having to play [Sevastova] is really tough," Stephens said to the press after the match. "Her game is super tricky. I mean, you have to kind of be ready for everything. But I don't think I played terribly. It's just, you know, not someone you want to play in the first round of any tournament."
Both players exhibited exceptional returning skills in the first set, and seven of the 12 games went against serve. Sevastova started ahead, breaking Stephens in her first two service games. The US Open champion was flustered and could not find the range on the groundstrokes which were rock solid over the summer.
But Sevastova's forehand broke down a bit in the middle of the set, and the players found themselves deadlocked at 5-5. Sevastova, however, found a way to claim another service break for 6-5, running down everything Stephens threw at her on break point, and then watching as Stephens wildly missed a backhand in dismay.
Sevastova calmly served out the first set, sealing an opening frame in which each player had an equal number of winners and unforced errors (ten apiece for Sevastova, and 13 of each for Stephens).
The Latvian carried this momentum into the second set, breaking a frustrated Stephens in the first game. Sevastova held for 2-0 to prolong her winning streak to four consecutive games, clinching that hold with a cheeky backhand drop shot. "I kind of got in the groove and relaxed a little bit," Sevastova admitted afterwards.
Stephens eventually started to find the range on her world-class backhand, and successfully utilized it to give herself two chances to break back at 3-2. But Sevastova saved both, and after reaching the final deuce of the game, held her serve when two straight Stephens groundstrokes were hit past the baseline.
Sevastova held at love for 5-3, forcing Stephens to serve to stay in the match. The American quickly fell behind 0-30, and Sevastova brought up triple match point with a scorching backhand winner down the line. Once Stephens slammed a final backhand into the net, victory went to the Latvian.
Sevastova is now looking forward to her next match on Thursday, against Strycova. "I think it’s good that I’m playing tomorrow again," Sevastova said. "I’m kind of in the match rhythm, but again, it’s a new day, a new match, and she’s a different player."