(Advisory: Note strong language in paragraph three)
By Frank Pingue
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Defending U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens learned the hard way on Tuesday that the path to retaining a Grand Slam title is littered with obstacles, including a sauna-like court at Flushing Meadows and sinus infection.
But the 25-year-old American, who lost her quarter-final against Latvian 19th seed Anastasija Sevastova in straight sets, is not about to lose any sleep over her failed bid at a repeat or let it affect her fighting spirit going forward.
“I could have shit the bed (lost) in the first round, and that would have been really bad,” Stephens, who is projected to drop five spots to eighth in the world rankings, told reporters.
“So the fact that I made it to the quarter-finals and played some really good matches and I just competed as hard as I could, I mean (there’s) a lot to be proud of.”
Stephens’ triumph over friend and compatriot Madison Keys in last year’s final capped a remarkable comeback from injury.
She recovered from foot surgery that forced her to miss most of the season and from a ranking that had fallen to nearly 1,000 to win her first Grand Slam all inside a year.
Stephens returned to New York with a spring in her step amid hopes of becoming the first woman to retain a Grand Slam title since Serena Williams triumphed at Wimbledon in 2015 and 2016.
Having reached her second Grand Slam final at this year’s French Open before an encouraging tune-up to Flushing Meadows, Stephens was considered a favorite.
She was cruising through her quarter of the draw until a bad sinus infection, sweltering playing conditions and the tenacious Sevastova got the better of her in the last eight.
But even though her first Grand Slam title defense did not work out as she envisioned, the experience will be invaluable to Stephens, who hopes to put in a strong finish to the season.
“Defending a title is very hard, very difficult. ... I made the most of it this week or the last... 10 days, whatever it was,” said Stephens.
“I can be proud of a lot of things that happened the last couple, the matches that I played, so I’m not going to dwell on it. Just keep building.
“There’s four more tournaments left. I’m just going to try to play the rest of the season as hard as I can and hopefully have some more good results.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue; Editing by Ken Ferris