Shara­pova tops No. 2 Halep at US Open in Slam re­turn

Sun.Star Baguio - - PRIMESPORTS -

NEW YORK -- When Maria Shara­pova's first Grand Slam match after a 15month dop­ing sus­pen­sion ended with a vic­tory at the U.S. Open, she dropped to her knees and cov­ered her face, tears welling in her eyes.

This was merely a win to get to the sec­ond round, yes, but it also clearly meant so much more to Shara­pova. It meant she was back.

Dis­play­ing as much emo­tion on court as she ever did after one of her five ma­jor cham­pi­onships, Shara­pova re­cov­ered after fal­ter­ing mid­way through the match and emerged to beat No. 2-seeded Si­mona Halep 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 at the U.S. Open over more than 2½ hours Mon­day night.

"Be­hind all these Swarovski crys­tals and lit­tle black dresses," Shara­pova told the Arthur Ashe Sta­dium crowd, "this girl has a lot of grit, and she's not go­ing any­where."

So much about Shara­pova was the same as it ever was: the shot-punc­tu­at­ing shrieks, the ag­gres­sive base­line style, the ter­rific re­turn­ing, the some­times-shaky serv­ing.

An­other fa­mil­iar sight: She gut­ted out a win.

"It's been a while," said Shara­pova, who missed ad­di­tional time after her ban be­cause of in­juries. "It al­most seemed like I had no right to win this match to­day. And I some­how did. I think that is what I'm most proud of."

After lead­ing by a set and 4-1 in the sec­ond, Shara­pova showed some fa­tigue and rust, drop­ping five games in a row. But in the third, Shara­pova re­gained con­trol by go­ing ahead 3-0, us­ing her power to keep two-time French Open run­ner-up Halep un­der pres­sure.

Shara­pova had not played at a Grand Slam tour­na­ment since Jan­uary 2016, when she tested pos­i­tive for the newly banned heart drug mel­do­nium dur­ing the Aus­tralian Open.

The 30-year-old Rus­sian was al­lowed back on the tour this April, but she was de­nied a wild-card in­vi­ta­tion for the French Open the next month. The U.S. Ten­nis As­so­ci­a­tion did grant a wild card to Shara­pova, who was once ranked No. 1 but is cur­rently 146th.

It was as if ev­ery one of Shara­pova's win­ners Mon­day and she com­piled 60, a star­tling 45 more than Halep - was her way of declar­ing, "Look out, every­body!"

Halep was among eight women who en­tered the U.S. Open with a chance to top the WTA rank­ings by tour­na­ment's end. The draw at Flush­ing Mead­ows ran­domly paired the two play­ers, pro­vid­ing a buzz-gen­er­at­ing matchup that man­aged to live up to the hype on Day 1 at the year's last Grand Slam tour­na­ment.

"I gave ev­ery­thing I had," Halep said. "She was bet­ter."

And at an event that be­gan with­out Ser­ena Wil­liams, who is ex­pect­ing a baby, and is al­ready miss­ing two of its top seven seeded women - No. 7 Jo­hanna Konta, a Wim­ble­don semi­fi­nal­ist just last month, was up­set by 78th-ranked Alek­san­dra Krunic of Ser­bia 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 Shara­pova must be con­sid­ered a se­ri­ous ti­tle con­tender. She did, after all, win the U.S. Open in 2006.

But Shara­pova wasn't in­ter­ested in look­ing too far ahead just yet.

"This is a big win for me, and I will en­joy it," she said, "then move on to the next one."

The last match on Mon­day's sched­ule ac­tu­ally fin­ished at 2:04 a.m. on Tues­day: After Shara­pova won, the fourth-seeded man, Alexan­der Zverev, needed to get through an 80-minute first set be­fore even­tu­ally beat­ing 168thranked qual­i­fier Dar­ian King 7-6 (9), 75, 6-4. King is the first player from Bar­ba­dos to par­tic­i­pate in a main-draw match at a ma­jor.

Shara­pova vs. Halep was a tremen­dously en­ter­tain­ing and high-qual­ity contest, more be­fit­ting a fi­nal than a first-rounder.

These two women have, in­deed, faced off with a Grand Slam ti­tle at stake: Shara­pova beat Halep in the 2014 French Open fi­nal, part of what is now her 7-0 head-to-head record in the matchup.

On Mon­day, they traded sting­ing shots, of­ten with Shara­pova - dressed in all black, from her vi­sor, to her dress that sparkled un­der the lights, to her socks and shoes - aim­ing to end ex­changes and Halep hus­tling into place to ex­tend them.

"I ex­pected her to hit ev­ery­thing," Halep said. "Some balls were re­ally good. I couldn't even touch them."

Points would last 10 or 12 strokes, or more, re­peat­edly leav­ing a sell­out crowd of 23,771 in Arthur Ashe Sta­dium clap­ping and yelling and high­fiv­ing, no mat­ter which player won them. The chair um­pire re­peat­edly ad­mon­ished spec­ta­tors to hush.

Halep blinked at the end of the hour-long first set, dou­ble-fault­ing to face a break point, then watch­ing Shara­pova pun­ish a 71 mph sec­ond serve with a fore­hand re­turn win­ner. That was Shara­pova's sixth re­turn win­ner; she would fin­ish with 14, more than enough to counter her seven dou­ble-faults.

Halep lamented that her serve was "very bad."

Asked why, she an­swered: "I didn't have the tim­ing, the feel­ing. I don't know why."

It was quickly 4-1 for Shara­pova in the sec­ond set and she held a break point there to al­low her to go up 5-1 and serve for the vic­tory. But she couldn't con­vert it. Then, only then, did Shara­pova strug­gle for a bit. Her foot­work was off. Her fore­hand lost its way. She would end up los­ing that game and the next four, too, as Halep man­aged to force a third set.

But with the out­come in the bal­ance, Shara­pova once again looked as if she had never been away, im­prov­ing to 11-0 in firstround matches in New York.

She was asked dur­ing her on-court in­ter­view what the low point was while forced off the tour.

"There were def­i­nitely a few," Shara­pova al­lowed, be­fore adding: "But I don't think this is the time to talk about that." AP

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