As Novak Djokovic‘s US Open run came to an unceremonious end with a default Sunday afternoon, Shelby Rogers was a few hundred feet away doing what she has been doing all tournament: defying everyone’s expectations.
Facing the two-time major champion and No. 6 seed Petra Kvitova in a fourth-round match on Louis Armstrong Stadium, the 27-year-old American staved off four match points to force a final set tiebreak and pull off a stunning upset. When it was over after 2 hours, 40 minutes of a hard-fought battle, Rogers screamed in delight and threw her racket to the floor.
She advanced to her first quarterfinals at the US Open after eight previous attempts. The smile that spread across her face as she looked at her coach in the stands said it all.
Nothing like that winning feeling 👏
— wta (@WTA) September 6, 2020
“It feels amazing, Day 72 in the bubble,” she said after the match. “It’s been a long time here in New York. I’m happy to be sticking around for some more.”
Currently ranked No. 93 in the world, Rogers wasn’t on many people’s radars entering the tournament.
She’s proving now that she probably should have been. At the Top Seed Open, the WTA Tour’s first event back following a six-month shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, she made it to the semifinals after beating 23-time major champion Serena Williams in the quarters in another third-set tiebreak. Rogers, who later said it was “every kid’s dream” to pull off the upset against the legend, brought that confidence with her to New York.
Although she lost in qualifying during the Western & Southern Open, the first of two events in the New York bubble, she has been dominant since the US Open began. Rogers opened play with a 6-2, 6-2 win over Irina Khromacheva and followed it with an upset over Elena Rybakina, the No. 11 seed. She defeated fellow American Madison Brengle in just more than an hour in the third round Friday and hadn’t dropped a set prior to Sunday’s clash with Kvitova.
“I felt really, really good coming in,” she said. “I felt fit and healthy and excited to play, which I think is most important for me. I was happy to be here, happy to have competitive tennis back.
“Coming off quarantine, I felt fit and ready to go. I guess [it was] the perfect storm, and here we are.”
Rogers is in the final eight and will face Naomi Osaka on Tuesday for a spot in the semifinals (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). Rogers holds a 3-0 career record against the 2018 US Open champion, but the two haven’t played since 2017.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Osaka said after her victory Sunday. “She’s in the quarters of a Slam. She’s a great player.”
This marks Rogers’ second quarterfinal berth at a major in her career. She hopes to do better than she did in her first appearance during the 2016 French Open, when she lost to eventual champion Garbine Muguruza in straight sets.
A lot has changed for Rogers since then, most notably a severe knee injury and subsequent surgery in May 2018, which sidelined her from competition for nearly a year. For a time, she wasn’t sure if she would ever return.
“I think the low moment was six months after my surgery, where I didn’t think I’d be able to play,” she said. “I wasn’t confident in my knee. I wasn’t able to move like I thought I should. Here I am two years later, as fit as I’ve ever been and moving really well.”
Rogers started the year ranked No. 174 and lost in the first round of the Australian Open but has surged since the season restart. She’s expected to jump almost 40 points in the next rankings and will be nearing her career high of No. 48, which she reached in 2017.
In a US Open featuring a number of highly touted, young, American players, Rogers, who has toiled on tour for years and achieved varying degrees of moderate success, is one of the last ones standing. During Sunday’s match, a group from the USTA, including Martin Blackman, general manager of player development, sat in the otherwise empty stands and cheered Rogers on.
“It’s been great to see so many young Americans coming up, but it’s amazing to see someone who’s been out there for a while to not just settle for having a good career and pushing the envelope and working on every aspect of their game,” Blackman said. “It just shows that she’s got a growth mindset, and she’s still hungry. What you and everyone saw in that match is a reflection of months of work that she put in during the break. She is a great example to all of our players.
“She made a commitment over the COVID break to her training, her fitness, her game, and she’s been working. That doesn’t just happen. It means she’s been really putting in the work, so that’s really gratifying to see. To see her come all the way back [after the knee surgery] and play so aggressive is inspiring.”
It’s clear that Rogers’ peers admire her ability to persevere. A quick look on social media following her win showed support from Sloane Stephens, Coco Vandeweghe, Jessica Pegula, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jennifer Brady, who also advanced to the quarterfinals earlier in the day.
As for Rogers, she is happy to be playing in the biggest match of her career Tuesday, but she isn’t exactly surprised to be in this position.
“I knew I could always do it,” she said. “It was a matter of head down, working hard to get back to that point. Being here, I want to push past it and really see what I’m made of.”