Maria Sharapova announced her return to the biggest stage with a reminder of her talents, as she defeated world number two Simona Halep in her first Grand Slam appearance since the 2016 Australian Open.
The Russian, who needed a wildcard to enter the main draw after serving a 15-month suspension for doping, beat Halep in three thrilling sets in front of 24,000 people in a packed night session.
“It’s prime-time baby, I love it!” Sharapova joked. “I embrace every moment of it and I love it.”
In a draw more reminiscent of the business end of a tournament rather than the first round, Sharapova was imperious in her hitting, and whilst she also showed a rustiness, hitting 64 errors, her 60 winners proved decisive.
“You never know what you’re going to feel until you win that match point, but everything you go through is worth it for this moment,” Sharapova said afterwards.
“You sometimes wonder why you put in all the work, and this is exactly why.”
In spite of returning from her ban in April, Sharapova has struggled to get going up to this point thanks to thigh and forearm injuries.
She has also received some hostility, including being refused a wildcard by the French Open, but received a warm reception in New York from a crowd treated to a first round match of the highest level.
Sharapova tweeted after the match to show her delight at the result, the reception, and the venue, saying: “New York, WOW!! How can I sleep after this!”
Her opponent, Halep, has been on the brink of the world number one ranking this year, but has lost crucial games at different stages as top spot continues to elude her.
She was match sharp having played 12 matches on US hard courts over the last month, but in the end, Sharapova’s power proved too much as the Russian’s racquet speed outdid Halep’s speed around the court.
Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam champion, took the initiative at the start in a tense first four games, before a flurry of hard hit winners won her the first set.
She continued in the same vein to take a 4-1 lead in the second, but Halep, who has twice been beaten in Grand Slam finals, including by Sharapova in the 2014 French Open, was not to be beaten so easily and recovered to win five games on the bounce to level the match.
As errors became more prominent in the Russian’s game, the match seemed to be running away from her with the fleet-footed Halep causing problems for a tiring Sharapova.
But, as is so often the case in high-level tennis, a well-timed six minute bathroom break allowed her to return fresh and reenergised for the deciding set.
Once more, Sharapova raced to a 4-1 lead, but this time, the Romanian would not be able to catch her. A determined Halep had saved 17 out of 22 break points, but could do nothing to stem the flow of winners as Sharapova edged home in a fittingly dramatic final game.
Overcome with emotion, Sharapova dropped to her knees in relief and celebration, before giving a determined interview afterwards, saying: “Behind all these crystals and little black dresses, this girl has a lot of grit and she is not going anywhere.”
Maria Sharapova is back.News Now - Sport News