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Maria Sharapova was back in black: in a lace-topped, sparkling diamante outfit that nodded to Audrey Hepburn’s dress in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, one of the Russian’s favourite films. And there was just enough substance alongside the showbiz dazzle on her return to New York for the game’s enduring diva to overpower Simona Halep, the world No2, for the seventh time in a row, as she moved into the second round to keep this US Open at fever pitch.
Her 10th match in 19 months – for reasons obvious to all but aliens – delivered much of the old imperious strut over the two hours and 24 minutes it took her to complete a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win. It was a performance that mixed brilliance and vulnerability in front of a goggle-eyed gathering on the tournament’s showcase court, Arthur Ashe. In 18 night matches in New York, Sharapova has never lost. She loves a big stage.
Sharapova created an extraordinary 22 break points, many of them with 28 forehand winners, but failed to convert 17 of them. There were 64 unforced errors to go with the ones that raised the cheers. The rust remains and, on Wednesday, the unseeded Hungarian, Timea Babos, who earlier saw off Switzerland’s Viktorija Golubic 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 on Court 15, gets her chance to see if Sharapova can back it up in the second round.
This, though, was a first-round match that felt like a final, Sharapova’s first grand slam appearance since she lost in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Australian Open, the tournament where all her troubles began. These championships, though, had leaked stars at an alarming rate even before a ball was struck on Monday; New York – and tennis, perhaps – needed her like a shipwrecked sailor needs a passing ship.
She had a little cry into her hands, then said courtside, “I thought this was going to be just another match but it was so much more. I didn’t want to think about it. You can’t really control your emotions. We some times wonder why we put in all the work. And this is exactly why. There have been a few low points, but I don’t think this is the time to talk about that. Behind all this glitter, this girl has a lot of grit, and she’s going nowhere.”
For long spells in the first set, the ball came off her racket with the vigour that rivals and fans have become accustomed to since she first caught admiring glances at Wimbledon 13 years ago. She is 30 now and the glory days might be numbered, but she retains her ice-cool charisma, her chilling scream and the death stare that could fell an ox.
Of course, there was the baggage: plenty of players in the locker room still resent the favours her celebrity brings, a wildcard here into the final major of the season that goes against the sentiment that barred her from Roland Garros and granted her only a qualifying spot at Wimbledon – which she did not take up, in the end, as her body creaked in the early stages of the comeback from her 15-month drugs ban.
Halep said before play here, “The tournament decided [to give Sharapova a wildcard], so they can do anything they want. Is not my position to talk about this. I think she’s OK.”
But the issue surely will die slowly now. It is history, if of the unsavoury kind. For all the latent resentment and piety bubbling in the background, Sharapova, winner of five slams, ought to be allowed to make what she can of the rest of her career.
Cynics will say she is using the game as a mere commercial platform; well, she always has done. What she remains is perhaps the toughest fighter in tennis during her era. And certainly she has the wheels, despite injuries that have struck since she returned in April: in nearly all of the 221 points contested in this match, she scampered with puppy-like enthusiasm, treating lost causes and winners alike.
The noisy crowd got into the entertainment the way they know best in this city, sensing the tension rising as Sharapova let her racket slice the warm night air. Alison Hughes, the British umpire, had her work cut out keeping them in order.
Halep needed a swinging clutch serve down the T to hang on after 18 minutes but got Sharapova another look and chipped away until her drowning opponent cracked on the fourth break point, helpless to even move towards a sizzling forehand, her 15th clean winner. After 28 minutes, they had played just four games, and Sharapova owned three of them. She broke again for 4-2, as Halep’s serve disintegrated. This was grinding of the highest order.
Sharapova’s second serve invariably had too much kick for 5ft 6in Halep, and it was only the Russian’s occasional errors going for the line off the ground that kept it close. However, a third double fault handed Halep another break point, and she took it, held through deuce to level in the eighth game as Sharapova’s racket grew reckless, before she brought the set to a close in just under an hour with yet another stunning forehand winner.
She was 4-1 in the second set, two games away from the fairytale comeback – and then wobbled alarmingly. Her composure crumbled and she lost five games in a row, squandering five break points in the 10th game as Halep held to keep the match alive.
Sharapova took a wardrobe break that was as strategic as much as fashion-driven, returning for the third set with the same dress but sporting a matching black card-player’s shade. The light, of course, had not changed – but the momentum had.
Slowly then with building inevitability, the deciding set and the match got away from Halep, whose gift for collapsing can be a painful sight. There was fight in her, without complete conviction, it seemed. Those previous defeats were her unspoken enemy now. She held for 3-5 and Sharapova stepped up to the service line to finish her off. She had to save break point before Halep put one more return long.
The packed stands could hardly have asked for more. Mostly, they loved her, rising to welcome her back – although there are some who never will, who cannot forgive her. However, as Brian Wilson wrote: “... She’s still dancing in the night, unafraid of what a dude’ll do in a town full of heroes and villains.”