The drama leading into this year’s US Open showcased many of the top men’s withdrawals, including Britain’s Andy Murray, and the impending arrival of Maria Sharapova for her first Grand Slam appearance since her return after a 15-month doping ban.
I don't think any tennis fan in the world is not going to have that match on. Let's be honest We all knew it was inevitable she would be back in majors and playing. I'm sure this first round is going to be interesting. Everyone knew it was a possibility something like this would happen. Madison Keys
The 30-year-old Russian received a wild card into the field for the year’s final Grand Slam event in New York with the first night feature match pitting Sharapova against Romania’s second-ranked Simona Halep.
It is the marquee match, scheduled for midnight UK time, after a first day session of play in the 128 women’s draw.
Were she in full form, Sharapova would be the favourite to win, with a 6-0 win record against Halep, but the 2006 US Open champion has struggled with injuries after her spectacular return in reaching the semi-finals in Stuttgart, the beneficiary of her first, somewhat controversial, wild card.
Her rivals remain divided over the former World No.1 receiving a wild card into the US Open field.
“I don’t think any tennis fan in the world is not going to have that match on. Let’s be honest,” said US 15th seed Madison Keys.
“We all knew it was inevitable she would be back in majors and playing. I’m sure this first round is going to be interesting. Everyone knew it was a possibility something like this would happen.”
Five-time Grand Slam champion Sharapova was banned after testing positive for the blood boosting drug meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open.
She was not offered a wild card into the French Open and many players were unhappy she had wild cards into other events starting in April.
She elected to play the qualifying event at Wimbledon but then opted out, citing injury.
The US Open, however, did offer a wild card, saying she had served her ban and is being treated like any other past champion.
“It’s once again something really tricky to answer, because I guess when someone has been banned or out of competition, I think you have to work for it a little bit to go and play your tournaments and not help that much sometimes,” said Wimbledon champion and Spanish third seed Garbiñe Muguruza.
“You’ve got to work hard and deserve it again. I think that’s the way.”
That said, Muguruza praised Sharapova as a player, saying: “I think she’s a fighter, great attitude, big fight, spirit on the court. I guess the fans want her back. I guess she will improve the tournament.”
Current World No.1 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic says Sharapova’s return is a positive move.
“It’s a good story for the tournament that she’s back and having this draw, what she’s having for her first round. I think it’s going to be a very good match,” Pliskova said.
“She’s very professional in all of the things she’s doing on the court and off the court with the media. Definitely she’s really good at that… I think for the people always it’s amazing show when she’s playing.”
Defending champion Angelique Kerber said that from what she has seen, Sharapova is ready for the Grand Slam spotlight.
“We will see,” Kerber said. “She’s back and I think she practiced good the last few weeks and she’s ready to be back.”
Caroline Wozniacki, the fifth-seeded Dane, isn’t worrying yet about Sharapova, who cannot cross her path until the semi-finals.
“I don’t really have much of an opinion,” Wozniacki said. “She’s a player like everyone else in the draw. I’m just doing my thing.”
The fact is, Sharapova comes into the US Open as a dangerous floater, despite her lack of match play.
She retired during her second-round match in Rome, withdrew prior to her second-round encounter in Stanford and pulled out of Toronto and Cincinnati, which means she has played just one match since May due to a forearm injury, which followed the thigh injury that kept her out of Wimbledon.
Simona Halep may be one of the game’s most dogged competitors but, traditionally, the Romanian has struggled against the big hitters, as evidenced by her surprising 6-1 6-0 loss to Muguruza in the Cincinnati final, and a loss of confidence at times.
It was the third time in three months that she had been one win away from taking the top spot, only to lose.
In the French Open final, she threw away a set and three-game lead over Jelena Ostapenko, while at Wimbledon she had a match point over Johanna Konta before losing in three sets.
Halep would have become the fourth woman to hold the top spot this year after Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber and Karolina Pliskova, but now is one of eight players vying to nail becoming World No 1 at the US Open.
Despite progressing to the final in Cincinnati without losing a set, the 25-year-old was totally outclassed by Muguruza, who needed only 56 minutes to win her second title of the season, the first time she has won multiple events in a single year.
Halep claims not to be thinking about the top spot anymore and at her press conference on Saturday said of her impending confrontation with Sharapova: “This year I had very tough draws every time almost. Of course was a little bit, like, How is possible again? Just first round of a Grand Slam.”
Asked whether it was fair for Sharapova to receive wild card, Halep replied: “The tournament decided, so they can do anything they want.
“Is not my position to talk about this. She’s coming back. She’s strong enough to come back, in my opinion.
“She has a lot of experience, and also many tournaments won. So I think she’s okay. Facing her, I’m, like, it’s going to be a big challenge, first round of Grand Slam to face her.
“She beat me six times. So maybe I will change this. We will see Monday. I just want to do my best, to try to win the match and of course to enjoy it. It’s a big, big match.”
Talking about being No 1and the mental challenges ahead, Halep said: “I lost three times the opportunity to get there. So enough is enough.
“If I think looked like I cannot make it, so maybe I change. If I’m not thinking about it, maybe I will be more relaxed and I can get it.”
If she can withstand the Sharapova test, Halep will not doubt be setting her sights on that top spot again and could well win her first Grand Slam title in two weeks time.
What to watch today
Twenty years ago Venus Williams made her first appearance at the US Open and stormed into the final, becoming the first unseeded player to do so in the Open era.
In 2017, she reprises her now familiar role of elder statesman, again facing a player who was not yet born when she made her debut – 19-year-old Viktoria Kuzmova, a talented up-and-comer, who won three matches in qualifying to earn her spot in the main draw.
That makes contenders match sharp and top players dislike playing qualifiers for that very reason, but the young Slovakian has never performed on a big stage like Arthur Ashe Stadium, much less in front of a partisan American crowd.
While she has enjoyed success this year on the ITF Pro Circuit and is expected to make match of it, it is hard not see Venus prevailing comfortably in straight sets.
Two Wimbledon champions kick off their campaigns with 4pm starts – Muguruza against another useful American, Varvara Lepchenko, and Petra Kvitova against the wily Jelena Jankovic.
Both should come through despite some spirited opposition.
Perhaps more entertaining is the line-up between Sloane Stephens and Roberta Vinci in what promises to be a great showdown between two talented shot-makers, matching the American’s wheels against the Italian’s guile.
Vinci is just two years removed from her run to the final here, but her results have been uneven in 2017.
Stephens, meantime, was sidelined for nine months with a foot injury and only returned to match play this summer, coming back strongly by advancing to the semi-finals at both Toronto and Cincinnati.
That many matches after a long layoff could catch up with Stephens in the long run, but she is the player in finer form heading into this match and should prevail in straight sets.
Two Brits take to the courts early on Day 1, Heather Watson, looking to break her run of first round losses in the Big Apple, against the tricky French woman Alizé Cornet; and Johanna Konta, the seventh seed for the title, against Aleksandra Krunic from Serbia.
Absentees this year are Victoria Azarenka (BLR) – family reasons; Timea Bacsinszky (SUI) – left leg and right hand injuries; Sara Errani (ITA) – ITF anti-doping suspension; Anna-Lena Friedsam (GER) – right shoulder injury; Kristina Kucova (SVK) – right knee injury; Bethanie Mattek-Sands (USA) – right knee injury; Laura Siegemund (GER) – right knee injury; Yaroslava Shvedova (KAZ) – left ankle injury; Samantha Stosur (AUS) – right hand injury; and Serena Williams (USA) – pregnancy.
The following players are using a special ranking to gain main draw entry to this year’s US Open: Sloane Stephens (USA); Ajla Tomljanovic (AUS); Sabine Lisicki (GER); and Misa Eguchi (JPN)
First held in 1887, the US Open women’s singles championship is being staged for the 131st time and 2017 event marks the 50th staging of the Open Era, which began in 1968 and saw the introduction of prize money.
The men’s event was first held six years earlier in 1881 so 2017 marks its 137th edition.