“I definitely have to value the feeling that I have now,” she said after the match. “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. This is a big win for me, and I will enjoy it, then move on to the next one.”
She did not play like a 30 year old who had not played at Flushing Meadows in three years. She performed like vintage Sharapova: aggressive, agile, and fearless, earning a berth in the second round, where she will face Timea Babos of Hungary.
Halep had the poor fortune of being paired against a former No. 1 player in the first round — one who had gone 6-0 against her head-to-head and 18-0 over all in night matches at Ashe Stadium.
This, of course, was no ordinary wild card.
Still, Halep was supposed to be the more conditioned player, the one with better timing and rhythm. Sharapova had only played one match since May, and only 10 matches since the 2016 Australian Open, where she lost to Serena Williams, her nemesis, in a quarterfinal. Surely, the long layoff would be a factor.
Although Halep played valiantly amid difficult circumstances, Sharapova demonstrated her intent from the second shot, a screaming backhand winner behind Halep. It was a tactical theme to be replayed numerous times, and Sharapova never stopped applying pressure on her opponent.
So Halep joined Johanna Konta of Britain, the No. 7 seed and Wimbledon finalist who lost to Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia by 4-6, 6-3, 6-4, as the first two players seeded in the top 10 to be knocked out.
A semifinalist here in 2015, Halep also lost in the first round at the Australian Open in January, to the American Shelby Rogers. But she rebounded to earn her second trip to the French Open finals in June and came into the United States Open looking to shake off her reputation for diminished play on the biggest stages.
If only the draw had not been so unkind.
Sharapova is ranked No. 145 because of her long layoff mandated by the imposed penalty for taking performance enhancing drugs. In June 2016, the International Tennis Federation announced that Sharapova had been barred for two years for using Meldonium, a substance that was initially permitted when Sharapova began taking it under doctor’s orders, she said, and that was later added to the list of banned substances. She said she had not been aware that it was added to the list.
The suspension was later reduced to 15 months and Sharapova came back in April at a tournament in Stuttgart, Germany, where she reached a semifinal. She then played in Madrid and Rome, but was denied a wild card into the French Open qualifying rounds. She withdrew from the Wimbledon qualifying event because of a thigh injury and then was granted a wild card into the main draw of the United States Open.
When she walked out on court in her black lace-and-sequins dress, black shoes and a black visor a little before 8 p.m., after an opening-night performance by the singer Shania Twain, she received moderate cheers. Her opponent received a slightly louder ovation, including chants of, “We want Halep,” from some devoted fans.
At first, Sharapova seemed to want it more, or was at least willing to commit to the daring shots necessary to unseat the No. 2 seed. Once she signaled that this would be a competitive match, the enthusiasm of the fans and the announcers grew.
“As much as I want to be in the zone, focus in on what I have to do, execution and all those things,” she said, “I definitely felt the energy. I felt the crowd.”
Sharapova moved with surprising ease across the court and showed no signs of the left arm soreness that forced her to stop playing since the Stanford tournament earlier this summer.
Her second serve was strong, and she moved Halep back and forth across the baseline with purpose, consistently finishing with ground strokes behind her opponent for winners and holding her fist in front of her face in celebration.
As the match moved into the second set, Sharapova seemed to be headed for a romp, surging ahead, 4-1. She had a forehand all set up on a break point, but hit the shot wide. Halep took advantage, winning that game and the next four to capture the set.
In need of a momentum shift, Sharapova took a bathroom break and then won the first three games of the third set, and jumped out to another 4-1 lead. But this time she closed it out, proclaiming her return to big-time tennis.
Asked during postmatch interview on ESPN what she learned, Sharapova said, “That behind this black dress with Swarovski crystals, this girl has a lot of grit and she’s not going anywhere.”
Continue reading the main story