Comebacks were the common thread woven through the round-of-16 matches played by Maria Sharapova, Sloane Stephens and Petra Kvitova on Sunday at the U.S. Open. The other match was about Venus Williams coming back to the happily familiar place where she was a surprise runner-up as a gangly 17-year-old in 1997 and has won two of her Grand Slam championships, the place where she did a twirl on the court Sunday to celebrate that her 75th victory in U.S. Open play had kept her in contention for another title in her 19th appearance here.
"This was my best match, so I was happy to see my level rise as the tournament is continuing because I know my opponents are going to be better; I need to be better," Williams said. "To be able to be out there and execute things that I wanted, it was a good feeling."
Not all the attempted comebacks were successful. Sharapova was ousted by Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, who reached her second straight U.S. Open quarterfinal with a 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 victory. But Stephens got past No. 30 Julia Goerges of Germany and Kvitova upset No. 3 seed and Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza 7-6 (3), 6-3 in the most stirring performance of the day and maybe of the entire tournament.
Kvitova wasn't sure she'd play tennis again after her left (playing) hand was badly slashed in a home-invasion attack in her native Czech Republic in late December. She still was reassembling her life and her career when she returned to play in the French Open, taking halting steps that produced mixed results. On Sunday she took a momentous leap forward by overcoming Muguruza's 4-1 lead in the first set and, after a late wobble, putting Muguruza away on her second match point.
"It was a dream to come and play on the stage. I worked hard to play here again. It's an incredible night to play in front of a great crowd," Kvitova said as the fans roared. "I don't think I can find the right words. All five months were very tough. It was a journey that I didn't know how the journey will end."
So far it has carried her to a quarterfinal matchup against Williams. Kvitova has a 4-1 edge in head-to-head play, excluding a walkover in Kvitova's favor, but Williams put that aside to express her admiration for her Czech rival.
"What she's gone through is unimaginable, unreasonable. The world we live in is just shocking," Williams said. "So for her, I think, to be playing well is such a blessing. To be able to come out here and do what she needs to do, to clear her head, it's such a beautiful thing to see. What else can I say except I'm glad to see her back."
Stephens' injury was less serious but enough to derail the progress of a young woman long considered a potential leader of the next generation of American female champions. The 24-year-old Floridian fractured her foot at the Rio Olympics and in January had surgery that left her mostly immobile for months. She absorbed straight-set losses in the first round in her first two tournaments but has since won 12 of 14 matches, carrying her to her first U.S. Open quarterfinal appearance.
"When I started playing again at Wimbledon and D.C. I didn't expect much. I was just playing and having fun, having a good time," Stephens said after her 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 triumph over 30th-seeded Goerges. "I'm still playing and having a good time. That's really all there is to it."
There's a little more than that. Reaching the semifinals of high-level tournaments in Toronto and Cincinnati did a lot to get her back in the mind-set and rhythm of competition. "I was able to get a lot of those matches in a row," she said, "which during a comeback is not easy. So I think that's probably where I kind of got a little fortunate there."
Stephens will face Sevastova, who outplayed a tiring Sharapova in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam champion who returned in April after serving a 15-month drug ban, has been getting more wild-card tournament berths and prime court assignments than the world's 146th-ranked player would normally receive, but she competed hard and well here and considered this a positive point in her comeback.
"Just competing, being in that competitive environment. That's what I missed," she said. "You can't replicate that anywhere, especially at a Grand Slam. … Reflecting back on the week, I can be happy."
She's done, but Kvitova gets to come back to continue her comeback. "Sometimes I just really feel that the touch is there, the strength, the aggressive kind of game plan of it. It's there, which I'm really, really appreciative for that. Took me while to find it," she said. "Luckily I find it in a Grand Slam, which is nice."