NEW YORK, Aug 29: When Maria Sharapova’s first Grand Slam match after a 15-month doping suspension ended with a victory at the US Open, she dropped to her knees and covered her face, tears welling in her eyes.
This was merely a win to get to the second round, yes, but it also clearly meant so much more to Sharapova. It meant she was back.
Displaying as much emotion on court as she ever did after one of her five major championships, Sharapova recovered after faltering midway through the match and emerged to beat No. 2-seeded Simona Halep 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 at the US Open over more than 2½ hours Monday night.
“Behind all these Swarovski crystals and little black dresses,” Sharapova told the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd, “this girl has a lot of grit, and she’s not going anywhere.”
So much about Sharapova was the same as it ever was: the shot-punctuating shrieks, the aggressive baseline style, the terrific returning, the sometimes-shaky serving.
Another familiar sight: She gutted out a win.
“It’s been a while,” said Sharapova, who missed additional time after her ban because of injuries. “It almost seemed like I had no right to win this match today. And I somehow did. I think that is what I’m most proud of.”
After leading by a set and 4-1 in the second, Sharapova showed some fatigue and rust, dropping five games in a row. But in the third, Sharapova regained control by going ahead 3-0, using her power to keep two-time French Open runner-up Halep under pressure.
Sharapova had not played at a Grand Slam tournament since January 2016, when she tested positive for the newly banned heart drug meldonium during the Australian Open.
The 30-year-old Russian was allowed back on the tour this April, but she was denied a wild-card invitation for the French Open the next month. The US Tennis Association did grant a wild card to Sharapova, who was once ranked No. 1 but is currently 146th.
It was as if every one of Sharapova’s winners Monday — and she compiled 60, a startling 45 more than Halep — was her way of declaring, “Look out, everybody!”
Halep was among eight women who entered the U.S. Open with a chance to top the WTA rankings by tournament’s end. The draw at Flushing Meadows randomly paired the two players, providing a buzz-generating matchup that managed to live up to the hype on Day 1 at the year’s last Grand Slam tournament.
“I gave everything I had,” Halep said. “She was better.”
And at an event that began without Serena Williams, who is expecting a baby, and is already missing two of its top seven seeded women — No. 7 Johanna Konta, a Wimbledon semifinalist just last month, was upset by 78th-ranked Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 — Sharapova must be considered a serious title contender. She did, after all, win the US Open in 2006.
But Sharapova wasn’t interested in looking too far ahead just yet.
“This is a big win for me, and I will enjoy it,” she said, “then move on to the next one.”
The last match on Monday’s schedule actually finished at 2:04 am on Tuesday: After Sharapova won, the fourth-seeded man, Alexander Zverev, needed to get through an 80-minute first set before eventually beating 168th-ranked qualifier Darian King 7-6 (9), 7-5, 6-4. King is the first player from Barbados to participate in a main-draw match at a major.
Sharapova vs. Halep was a tremendously entertaining and high-quality contest, more befitting a final than a first-rounder.
These two women have, indeed, faced off with a Grand Slam title at stake: Sharapova beat Halep in the 2014 French Open final, part of what is now her 7-0 head-to-head record in the matchup.
On Monday, they traded stinging shots, often with Sharapova — dressed in all black, from her visor, to her dress that sparkled under the lights, to her socks and shoes — aiming to end exchanges and Halep hustling into place to extend them.
“I expected her to hit everything,” Halep said. “Some balls were really good. I couldn’t even touch them.”
Points would last 10 or 12 strokes, or more, repeatedly leaving a sellout crowd of 23,771 in Arthur Ashe Stadium clapping and yelling and high-fiving, no matter which player won them. The chair umpire repeatedly admonished spectators to hush.
Halep blinked at the end of the hour-long first set, double-faulting to face a break point, then watching Sharapova punish a 71 mph second serve with a forehand return winner. That was Sharapova’s sixth return winner; she would finish with 14, more than enough to counter her seven double-faults.
Halep lamented that her serve was “very bad.”
Asked why, she answered: “I didn’t have the timing, the feeling. I don’t know why.”
It was quickly 4-1 for Sharapova in the second set and she held a break point there to allow her to go up 5-1 and serve for the victory. But she couldn’t convert it. Then, only then, did Sharapova struggle for a bit. Her footwork was off. Her forehand lost its way. She would end up losing that game and the next four, too, as Halep managed to force a third set.
But with the outcome in the balance, Sharapova once again looked as if she had never been away, improving to 11-0 in first-round matches in New York.
She was asked during her on-court interview what the low point was while forced off the tour.
“There were definitely a few,” Sharapova allowed, before adding: “But I don’t think this is the time to talk about that.” AP