Five-time major champion Maria Sharapova made an assured return to New York’s Flushing Meadows Monday night with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win over World No. 2 Simona Halep in her first competition following a 15-month ban for drugs.
The Russian produced a dominant display which often combined agility with sheer power and athleticism, overwhelming the Romanian in three sets, taking the final one despite Halep’s best efforts to fight back.
The 30-year-old Sharapova’s mental game was on point during the thrilling match as she stretched, screamed and powered her way to what was ultimately her competition to lose.
In what was one of the most thrilling first-round matches in recent U.S. Open history, the Russian continued her winning streak over her opponent — she’s never lost to Halep in a half-dozen previous head-to-heads.
Halep, overpowered and outplayed for much of the two-hour, 43-minute match, refused to give up and clawed back sets beginning at 4-2 down in the second set, when she convincingly broke Sharapova’s serve.
Halep dug deep in the second set to win five straight games in a row, but it was not to be and Sharapova closed out the match with a tense third set in front of a strongly pro-Sharapova crowd.
Fatigue was setting in as Sharapova held her nerve in the final set, feeding off the crowd’s vocal encouragement of the Russian during her return to the Arthur Ashe Stadium.
‘Prime time, baby’
Following the match, Sharapova paid emotional tribute to the effort that has taken her back to the highest level of competition.
“You sometimes wonder why you put in all the work, and this is exactly why.”
She added that her rivalry with Halep meant that the draw added an extra frisson to her opening match at a major in over a year.
“We respect each other so much and when we both saw the draw there was something extra in that.”
The win takes Sharapova to 18-0 at Arthur Ashe at night.
“Its prime time, baby. I love it. When I found out it was going to be a night match, these are the opportunities that you play for…. I embrace every moment and I love it.”
Referencing her eye-catching dress, which sparkled throughout the match, Sharapova said that the glamor belied the grit.
“Behind these Swarovski crystals and little black dresses, this girl has a lot of grit and she’s not going anywhere.”
Return to form
In March 2016, Sharapova announced that she had tested positive for meldonium. Initially, she was given a two-year ban by the International Tennis Federation, but it was reduced on appeal to 15 months.
The Russian former world No. 1’s ranking had plummeted during her enforced absence — to No. 146 — to the point where she wasn’t good enough to reach the main draw of the U.S. Open, necessitating a wild card entry.
In May, the French Tennis Federation denied Sharapova a wild card entry to the French Open. Following that decision, Sharapova elected to enter Wimbledon qualifying in the final week of June instead of requesting a main-draw wildcard.
Before tonight, she had played only nine matches, winning six and losing three since the 2016 Australian Open.
Her last major title came in 2014, when she won the French Open. Sharapova won the U.S. Open in 2006 and reached the semifinals in 2005 and 2012.
She said she failed to realize the heart drug she had taken for more than a decade for various health issues had been added to the prohibited list of the World Anti-Doping Agency from January 1, 2016.