Maria Sharapova was experiencing a mini meltdown in her first Grand Slam action since her doping ban, an emotional rollercoaster of a match that included loud grunts and tense moments from both sides.
Then, Sharapova ran off the court. She literally left after collapsing in the second set.
Nearly 10 minutes later, the Russian returned through the tunnel and the tennis momentum completely shifted. If that was a bathroom break, Sharapova obviously needed the relief. But her opponent Monday suggested it was a more of a recurring tactic of gamesmanship.
“Like always,” Simona Halep said. “I’m used to it. When I play against her, she does that all the time.”
Sharapova went from dropping five straight games in the second set Monday to winning three straight in the decisive third, lifting the 30-year-old to a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, first-round victory over Halep, the hard-luck second-seed with the unfavorable draw.
When it was over, Sharapova collapsed to the ground and cried while waving to the crowd. It wasn’t a typical reaction of a five-time Grand Slam champion following a first-round victory, but Sharapova clearly thinks she was wronged by the ITF with her 15-month suspension.
“I just thought this was another day, another opportunity, but this was so much more,” said Sharapova, who simply overpowered her smaller opponent.
Because of her inactivity due to the suspension – and a subsequent injury — the tournament’s female headliner needed a wild card invitation to get into the US Open. Sharapova then drew Halep, a two-time Grand Slam finalist, in the first round.
That turned into a bigger problem for Halep, who, after Monday, is 0-7 in her career against Sharapova. Once a dominating force in women’s tennis with marketing potential as strong as her ground strokes, Sharapova hasn’t won the US Open in 11 years. She’s now 30, past her prime but certainly capable of a long run through the bracket.
She faces 66th-seeded Timea Babos in the second round.
“Behind this sparkly black dress, this girl has grit and she’s not going anywhere,” Sharapova said.
Sharapova missed the last six Grand Slam tournaments after testing positive for meldonium, which was had just been banned by Wada (Sharapova insisted she took the drug for years because of a magnesium deficiency and family history of diabetes). Her suspension was reduced from two years to 15 months, but a forearm injury turned Monday into her first Grand Slam match since January of 2016.
At first, Sharapova didn’t get much of a reaction from a crowd that included Alex Baldwin and Henrik Lundqvist. But it seemed to get behind the Russian as she pounced on Halep, needing one hour to win a marathon opening set.
Sharapova had an issue with her racket in the second set and had it re-gripped with tape by her coach in the stands. She then played with another racket and perhaps that served as distraction, because Sharapova started making mistakes and blew a 4-1 lead in the second set.
Her next move was darting through the tunnel for an extended break, returning to upend Halep’s momentum.
“From the second I found out I was playing Simona, I was actually getting my nails done, I got my phone out and I pulled up YouTube videos of our matches and started studying our matches,” Sharapova said. “I felt like going into this match, I knew my game plan. It’s one thing knowing what you want to do and it’s another thing executing it. I haven’t been on court much in the last few weeks, not as much as anyone that’s in the draw this week.”
“The fact that I was able to come out and play that way, beat the No. 2 player in the world in the first round of the US Open, it’s been a while, I think those are definitely the emotions that I was feeling.,”
There’s an opening in this tournament without Serena Williams, who is pregnant and expecting in September. Neither Williams nor Sharapova played in the previous two US Opens, and the champions in those tournaments (Angelique Kerber and Flavia Pennetta) are no longer ranked in the top-5.
Sharapova waited a long time for this victory, and she wanted to savor it for as long as possible.
“I’ll enjoy this for a little bit of time, then I have to move on. But I definitely have to value the feeling that I have now,” she said. “I think that’s important. I can’t take that for granted. I can’t take the level for granted. I can’t take my emotions for granted.”
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