Maria Sharapova is back playing Grand Slam tennis—and she let the world know with an impressive victory over No. 2 Simona Halep in the first round at the U.S. Open on Monday night. After nearly three hours on the court, Sharapova beat Halep 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 to advance.
In front of a sellout crowd of 23,771 at Arthur Ashe Stadium, five-time major champion Sharapova was competing in her first match at major since serving a 15-month doping ban, against the world's second best player who has had a heck of a summer. Armed with massive returns and powerful play, Sharapova dictated the tempo of the match. A night of bad serving did not help the Romanian, who, to her credit, stuck in and fought for the match every time it seemed as though Sharapova was going to run away with it.
In the first set, Sharapova was able to go up two breaks for 4-2, but Halep raised her level and Sharapova hit a string of costly errors and double faults—perhaps a bit a rustiness due to her lack of match play this season—to bring up 4-all. After a Sharapova hold for 5-4, Halep had two game points but Sharapova saved them both, and she sealed the set with a forehand return winner—an appropriate shot given she dominated that stat column, finishing with 16 to Halep's four.
In the second set, Sharapova looked ready to take the match, up a set and 4-1. But then Sharapova blinked. The errors started to pile up for the Russian, giving Halep an open invitation to turn the momentum around. From 1-4 down, Halep hung in, reeling off five straight games to take the second set over Sharapova and force a decider after just over two hours of play.
In the final set, Sharapova was able to put her disappointing second set behind her to take a 4-1 lead over Halep. Could she do it this time around? Once again, Halep looked determined and held off Sharapova for three more games. But in the end, on her first match point, Sharapova closed out the win, finishing the match with 60 winners and 64 unforced errors, to Halep's 15 winners and 14 unforced errors.
The Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd was quite evenly split at the beginning of the match, with cheers of "SI-MO-NA!" as often as "Let's go Maria!" The roars after each won a point or long rally seemed to be equal for both, especially as the momentum of the match continued to swing back and forth. Because of Halep's recent form (a finalist in Cincinnati, quarterfinals or better at 10 consecutive tournaments, 2017 French Open runner-up) and Sharapova's struggle with injuries since returning in April (she withdrew from Toronto and Cincinnati, did not play Wimbledon due to injury), many believed the Romanian had a slight advantage over Sharapova just based on the past few months.
"I just thought this was another day, another opportunity, another match, but this was so much more," Sharapova said in an on-court interview after the match. "Behind all these Swarovski crystals and little black dresses, this girl's got a lot of grit. And she's not going anywhere."
Sharapova lead the head-to-head 6-0 against Halep going into the match, with their last career meeting coming at the 2015 WTA Finals. With the win, Sharapova improved to 11-0 in first round matches at U.S. Open. A U.S. Open champion in 2006, Sharapova was playing in New York for the first time since 2014, while Halep was returning after a tough, three-set quarterfinals loss to Serena Williams last year.
Halep was one of eight players who had a chance to claim the WTA World No. 1 ranking at the end of the U.S. Open, as she entered the tournament just five points behind current World No. 1 Karolina Pliskova. The last No. 2 women's seed to lose in the first round of the U.S. Open was Andrea Jaeger in 1981. Sharapova moves into the second round to face Hungary's TimeaBabos.