NEW YORK (AP) – So much about Maria Sharapova was the same as it ever was during her first Grand Slam match since a 15-month doping suspension: the shot-punctuating shrieks, the aggressive baseline style, the terrific returning, the sometimes-shaky serving.
Another familiar sight: The five-time major champion gutted out a victory.
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 U.S. Open on Monday night to reach the second round.
“This girl has a lot of grit and she’s not going anywhere,” Sharapova told the crowd in an on-court interview.
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. It was as if every one of Sharapova’s winners – and she compiled 60, 45 more than Halep – was her way of declaring, “I’m back!”
When a Halep shot sailed long to end the match after more than 2Â½ hours, Sharapova dropped to her knees on court, then covered her face as her eyes welled with tears.
“I just thought that was another day, another opportunity, another match,” Sharapova said. “But this was so much more. I tried not to think about it.”
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 U.S. Tennis Association did grant a wild card to Sharapova, who was once ranked No. 1 but is currently 146th.
That is 144 spots below Halep, who is among eight women that 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.
It 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.
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.
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 a bit 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. She raced ahead 3-0 in the third, then 5-2. And this time, she did not let Halep back in, improving to 11-0 in first-round matches in New York.
This was by far the day’s most significant match, no matter happened later in the men’s encounter in Ashe between No. 4 Alexander Zverev and qualifier Darian King of Barbados.
Earlier Monday, seven-time major champion Venus Williams picked up a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 victory against Viktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia, a 19-year-old qualifier who is ranked 135th, joining past Wimbledon winners Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova in the second round.
But No. 7 seed Johanna Konta, a Wimbledon semifinalist just last month, was bounced by 78th-ranked Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” Konta said. “I think it would be quite obnoxious of me to come in here expecting I have a right to be in second week.”
And in another surprise, 13th-seeded Jack Sock of the United States was eliminated 6-2, 7-6 (12), 1-6, 5-7, 6-4 by 73rd-ranked Jordan Thompson of Australia.
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