Reality didn't meet the hype for Maria Sharapova

NEW YORK -- Countless fans were shocked by the upset inflicted on Maria Sharapova at the US Open by the relatively unknown No. 16 seed, Anastasija Sevastova. But that's what you get when hype and reality are a little off-kilter.

This was a result that came as no great surprise to many, including Sharapova. Sure, she received a controversial wild card and regal treatment at a US Open stripped of Serena Williams and a handful of ATP stars. She immediately took possession of the New York night (or shared it with Roger Federer) and was welcomed to Arthur Ashe stadium by adoring fans like a queen returning from exile.

The optics and cosmetics were seductive, but they weren't going to win Sharapova any matches or carry her to her first Grand Slam triumph since the French Open of 2014.

"I came in [to New York] not playing a lot of matches," Sharapova said after she was beaten by Sevastova 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 on Sunday in a grueling, physical, 2-hour, 17-minute match. "I didn't have much practice. Obviously, it's always disappointing to be on the losing end of things. But reflecting back on the week, I can be happy."

So ends Sharapova's summer of great expectations -- and surprising frustrations. She returned from a 15-month suspension for doping in mid-April unranked but raring to go. She got off to a good start, accepting a wild card into Stuttgart and belting her way to the semifinals.

But things quickly went sideways. A surprising number of her peers, some of them marquee names, objected to tournaments awarding her wild cards because of the reason for her absence. The French Open, the only major Sharapova has won more than once, took the same position and declined to invite her.

At the same time, she fell victim to a series of injuries that, among other things, caused her to withdraw from Wimbledon qualifying. Her summer hard-court season consisted of just one match, a win over Jennifer Brady at Stanford. Sharapova issued a walkover because of a left arm injury before her next match. Stuttgart, it seemed, was peak -- not preview.

All that was obscured when the USTA offered her a wild card along with the kind of billing offered to a Broadway star. Sharapova responded with a game effort. She played a terrific match to upset No. 2 seed Simona Halep on the first night of the tournament. Inspired, Sharapova rode the high to two more wins.

"Playing four matches in front of a big crowd and fans, just competing in that environment, that's what I missed." Sharapova said. "You can't replicate that anywhere."

Sharapova had plenty of time to enjoy those rekindled feelings -- too much, in fact. She prowled the Deco-Turf court, shrieking and screaming, "Come on," for a combined 7 hours, 44 minutes (two of her wins were three-setters) this week. Sevastova had logged just 3:46. That helps explain why the match shaped to Sevastova's liking, lulling Sharapova into her counter-puncher's trap and tiring her.

"I think I allowed the match to become physical," Sharapova said afterward. "I don't think I played as aggressive or was stepping in as much as I did in the first set, especially in the beginning of the match. I definitely took a few steps back a little bit and gave her the time to dictate play and get more balls back."

But don't sell Sevastova short. While the 30-year-old Russian is an imposing 6-foot-2, Sevastova is a compact 5-foot-7. Sharapova traffics in power tennis; her serves are rockets, while Sevastova's travel at roughly the speed of the moon orbiting the earth.

Sharapova also is a brand, a star. If Sevastova were a celebrity, it would be as a television chef whose ability to slice and dice dazzles the eye. All those cuts, chips and just plain junk that make up Sevastova's repertoire were useful Sunday, though she knew the chance she was taking in trying to meet Sharapova's power with guile.

"I try to play smart," Sevastava said. "Sometimes it's an advantage, sometimes not. If she hits you off the court, then you say, 'Congratulations.' [But] when they're hitting, they're also making mistakes."

We know where Sevastova goes from here: a second consecutive US Open quarterfinal. This one will come against the resurgent Sloane Stephens.

As for Sharapova, with the Grand Slam season over and those recent injuries undoubtedly fresh in her mind, she must decide how important the fall tournaments are. The option is to adjust her expectations and focus on the upcoming year.

"It's been a really great ride in the last week," Sharapova said. "It was an incredible opportunity. I'm very thankful for the opportunity. I did my best. I can be proud of that."