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The Maria Sharapova Show, a drama in two parts, extended its New York run on day three of the US Open when Timea Babos bowed to the Russian’s enduring aura.
For Sharapova, who won this title 11 years ago, the hauteur is still there, but the underpinning reason for it is not as convincing as it was in her pomp. Her next assignment in the third round on Fridaywill be a further test of her stamina and spirit. Both held up well enough as she ground out a 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-1 win in two hours and 19 minutes in a second appearance on the tournament’s main stage, Arthur Ashe Stadium.
But her grit has always disguised a physical vulnerability, and she has spent just over five hours on court in two matches. If she is to shock the world, she is going to be mighty tired at the end of it.
“I’ve played a lot of tennis in the last couple of days,” she agreed. “I just wanted to be the fittest player out there today and I was. Now it’s one day at a time.”
The intensity the 30-year-old former champion brought to her comeback match against the world No2 Simona Halep over three engrossing sets on Monday night looked to have dimmed a little, although she did not give the Hungarian a moment’s peace in a close first set. But Babos, who has slipped from 25 in the world at the end of 2016 to 59, found inspiration under pressure and edged the tie-break.
They exchanged breaks at the start of the second, and there was little in it as the match approached the two-hour mark. Sharapova broke again and led 4-3 as her bigger serve started to break Babos’s defences down. The ramparts crumbled in the third and a tired Hungarian forehand into the tramlines brought the curtain down with a sense of anti-climax and resignation.
The five-time slam champion, ranked 145, is here on a wildcard, ending a frustrating exile from the big time after failing a drugs test at the Australian Open last year that cost her 15 months of her career. Not everyone is happy about the indulgence she has been shown, but she is ignoring all sniping, from corners of the media to the locker-room.
The former US Open finalist and British No1, Greg Rusedski, spoke for many of Nick Kyrgios’s critics after the Australian collapsed against in four sets against his compatriot, John Millman. His serving shoulder gave up on him in the third, although he still managed to power it down regularly at more than 130mph and struck 17 aces. Rusedski observed on Eurosport: “That performance was terrible. The first set was fine and he played pretty well then he wins the second set and you’re thinking everything is ok. Yes the shoulder was bothering him, but take two anti-inflammatory tablets, get the physio on and find a way through it.
“He was serving at 137 miles per hour with a bad shoulder. He didn’t have any problems with his feet or his legs so he could run as much as he liked out there. He’s got to become more professional, he is such an amateur. With his ability he should be doing so much more. And if he doesn’t decide to do that his career will be a waste. He could be top five in the world, if not higher. He is just so gifted, he has been given a gift that he’s wasting.
“If he doesn’t want to play tennis then don’t play tennis, go do something else with your life. There’s people working 9-5 in jobs which are so hard, grinding every day and making no pay whatsoever. He’s getting millions of dollars a year to play this sport. But he has the chance to walk away and do something else with his life.”
Kyrgios, who also retired here last year and quit in three tournaments in a row in midsummer – Queen’s, Wimbledon and Washington – plainly has physical issues, but he lets those problems seep into his mind, too. He received a code violation for an obscenity in the third set, when his serving arm began to worry him, and was penalised a point for smashing his racket.
When Millman – who is returning from seven months out injured himself –wrapped it up 6-3, 1-6, 6-4, 6-1 after two-and-a-quarter hours in the Louis Armstrong Stadium, Kyrgios collected the used water bottles strewn around his courtside chair, put them in the bin then found his smashed racket – which he took away with him. It was a strange memento to keep from a strange match.
Kyrgios said later:“I have had a diabolical year at these slams. It doesn’t surprise me. It’s the story of my career, really. I will have good weeks, I’ll have bad weeks. It’s just a roller-coaster. The last three months have been a nightmare. It’s not the end of the world. I will get over it in probably half an hour. I will get food and watch the matches. It is what it is.”
He admitted: “I’m not dedicated to the game at all,” and revealed he was playing basketball and eating ice cream before matches in Cincinnati last week – where he still managed to reach the final, losing to Grigor Dimitrov. “There are players out there that are more dedicated, that want to get better, that strive to get better every day, the one-percenters. I’m not that guy.”
Meanwhile, Aljaz Bedene joined the British exit when the 19-year-old Russian, Andrey Rublev - who lost in three sets to Andy Murray at the Australian Open this year - beat him 6-1, 6-4, 6-4 in front of a small gathering on Court No8. Bedene, who was confident going into the match against the young firebrand, never properly got into the match.