FLUSHING MEADOWS – When it was over, after two hours and 42 minutes, Maria Sharapova fell to the court in victory.
It was an reaction more appropriate for a Grand Slam final.
But this 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory over world No. 2 Simona Halep of Romania came … in the first round, on opening night of the US Open.
The moment, of course, lost a little in that after Sharapova hit the deck, everyone had to wait for the Hawkeye challenge to ensure that the Russian, indeed, had won.
It was the first time Sharapova had played a match in a Grand Slam since the 2016 Australian Open, some 19 months ago. That was the tournament at which she tested positive for meldonium.
After serving a 15-month suspension, Sharapova was awash in wild cards from WTA Tour events eager to benefit from the most marketable athlete in the women’s game.
But the Slams weren’t quite so eager.
First Slam in 19 months
The French Open righteously insisted they would not give a player returning from a doping suspension a wild card.
Wimbledon never had to make the decision. Sharapova controlled that narrative as she has controlled much of the narrative through her suspension and comeback. She announced she would play the qualifying.
But the thigh injury she suffered a couple of months before in Rome still had not healed sufficiently. And Sharapova ended up skipping the grass-court season.
Now, in New York, the former champion and American resident did receive an invitation to the big dance.. And she returned in style.
“I just thought that this was another day, another opportunity, another match. But this was so much more, and I didn’t want to think about it,” Sharapova said during an on-court interview with an acquiescent ESPN. “You never know how you’re going to feel until you win that match point. But you know that everything you go through is worth it, just for this moment. You sometimes wonder why you put in all the work. And this is exactly why.”
Health a big question
There had been plenty of buzz prior to the match that Sharapova wasn’t tip-top physically. She has played just one tennis match since early May because of an assortment of physical niggles. A lot of it is a by-product of her now being 30 and having been out of competition for such an extended period.
Were they playing possum? Possibly. But not probably. If there’s anything most are unanimous about when describing the Russian, it’s that her competitive spirit is unquenchable. She’s done everything, made more money than she could ever spend. But that desire never seems to waver.
“When the draw came out, I knew what a difficult matchup this would be, how much excitement was behind this matchup and the hype. That all goes to the fact that we’ve just competed so well against each other in the past. Really produced some good tennis,” Sharapova said. “Despite not playing a lot of matches coming into this, 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.”
Sharapova said she almost didn’t make it to New York. She had an MRI when the forearm issue first surfaced, and another one a couple of weeks ago in Cincinnati. After that, she flew to New York to get another opinion on it.
Had it been a regular tournament, the decision might have been different. But this was New York. A Grand Slam. A lot of off-court business to take care of. a memoir coming out in a couple of weeks.
And prime time. Sharapova is now 18-0 in night matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium in her career.
New Yorkers welcomed her
The crowd in New York was hugely welcoming. Was that surprising? Hard to tell. If you spent too much time on social media during the last year and a half – as many tennis fans do – you see how polarizing the doping suspension has made the former US Open champion.
Many fans – and players, and even people in the game – feel Sharapova has no business getting wild cards as she works her way back from the suspension. Clearly most of the 23,771 on the stadium court, who paid good money (or had their company or a client pay good money) to see her, felt differently.
Host broadcaster ESPN treated her as returning royalty. The crew – all female save for on-court interviewer Tom Rinaldi, praised her improved flexibility and intimated they’d never seen her play better. Which was going a little far.
And when Sharapova went up to the control desk, it was kisses and reverence and emotion.
It was a lot. And, as always, Sharapova directed the narrative. When Rinaldi even tried to bring up the past, Sharapova swiftly shot that down. And then … she giggled.
She deflected the question again in her press conference.
Team Sharapova emo
But however you feel about whether she should have been there, however you feel about the doping suspension, the reality is that Sharapova wasn’t able to ply the trade she’s passionate about for quite some time.
The emotions were real. The sight of tough-talking agent Max Eisenbud sobbing after Sharapova left the court, and her putting her arm around him, spoke to the loyalty Sharapova engenders in the people she has brought around her.
It was a primetime show the likes of which hasn’t often been seen in women’s tennis this season.
And it’s not that there haven’t been many incredible matches. There have been.
But Sharapova’s star power brings it to the next level.
And what of Halep, who two weeks ago was one win away from coming into the US Open as the top seed and the new world No. 1?
Another setback for Halep
It’s going to be serious reflection time the next two weeks as the rest of the women’s field vies for the big trophy.
“It was a tough one for first round, for sure. But still I think I played okay. She played really well. It was a good match. It was good for the fans,” said Halep, who was a vocal critic of the way being paved so invitingly for Sharapova’s return.
She fought. Sharapova was up a set and 4-1, with a break point to go up 5-1 and serve for the match in the second set before Halep reeled off five straight games and pushed it to a decider.
“I didn’t think that I lost the match. I just kept fighting, playing. I feel that I started to play a little bit more relaxed after that score. Then I got the confidence back. Actually, I didn’t lose the confidence during the match because I felt that I was very close, also in the first set,” she said. “I mean, I cannot judge myself for not doing something, just the serve, because was a bad serve today. I didn’t have the timing, the feeling. I don’t know why. Maybe because was night. It’s always different. I didn’t practice night. But these are excuses.
“I just had to try something else, but I didn’t. So was my bad there,” she added.