US Open Day 1 | Sharapova shocks Halep
Second-seeded Simona Halep followed Johanna Konta the 7th seed, out of the US Open on Day 1, when the Romanian fell at the hands of Maria Sharapova.
Both were among the eight contenders for the World No 1 ranking, and both will feel bitterly disappointed at blowing their respective opportunities.
For Sharapova, it was a performance as dazzling as the crystal-encrusted black dress she wore and a signal that the Russian is still a force to be reckoned with.
Behind this little black dress and the Swarovski crystals, there is a girl with a lot of grit and she's not going anywhere Maria Sharapova
The first-round match was one of the most anticipated challenges in the women’s tournament.
Halep needed to show deep mental strength to win but she struggled to come up with the goods at the French Open and Wimbledon and even in Cincinnati she showed her vulnerability.
Sharapova, if she has overcome her physical problems, is the true outsider for the tournament.
The Russian arrived in New York fresh and rested and with the will to succeed and the blockbuster certainly lived up to the hype under the lights on Arthur Ashe Stadium, with Sharapova ultimately overpowering Halep to win 6-4 4-6 6-3.
The 2006 champion had looked set to win in straight sets when she led 4-1 in the second only to let it slip but recovered to clinch a dramatic victory after two hours and 44 minutes.
The 30-year-old marked her return to Grand Slam tennis after serving a 15-month doping ban with a thrilling 50th appearance at a major and her first at the US Open for three years.
If there were dissenters among the crowd, they kept their thoughts to themselves as Sharapova strode onto court in a black sequinned dress with cheers ringing in her ears.
It was as if she had never been away as she took her night-time record on the Arthur Ashe Stadium to 18 wins in 18 matches.
Fittingly, Sharapova played in a black dress, just as she had done in 2006 when she was crowned champion, one of her five Grand Slam titles.
“Behind this little black dress and the Swarovski crystals, there is a girl with a lot of grit and she’s not going anywhere,” Sharapova said after seeing off Halep for the seventh time in seven meetings.
Sharapova only returned to tennis in April after her doping ban had run its course and her progress has been controversial as she benefitted from wild cards to Stuttgart and a Madrid.
She was not offered one, however, into the French Open, while a thigh injury put paid to her hopes of playing Wimbledon qualifying.
With her ranking down at 146, she needed another wild card to get into the main draw of the US Open but she was in danger of missing New York after picking up an arm injury at Stanford, where she played her only hard court match of the year.
Addressing the crowd, she said: “We put in all the work and this is exactly why.”
Shania Twain headlined the opening ceremony immediately before the contest on a platform shaped like a tennis racket, but there was no upstaging Sharapova.
“You try and think it’s another day, another opportunity but it was so much more,” said Sharapova, who fell to her knees in tears after securing her triumph.
Later she told reporters: “You never know how you are going to feel until match point but you figure it’s all worth it.”
Sharapova ended with 60 winners and 64 unforced errors and converting just 5 of her 22 break opportunities.
It was the type of all-or-nothing assault that has served her well since she first burst on the scene with a 2004 Wimbledon title.
That victory, which came when she was still a giggly 17-year-old, launched her into superstardom and she is more than aware that having passed 30 in April, her chances are dwindling.
“When me and my coach first scheduled my practice on centre court, actually it got moved because they had some maintenance issues,” said Sharapova, who missed last year’s US Open due to her suspension and the 2015 event to injury.
“I was upset about it because I really wanted that first practice. Those little things you kind of take for granted.
“From the moment that I’ve been here, I’ve really understood what this means to me, to be back and to be playing.”
Sharapova almost missed the 2017 edition as well as she battled her left arm injury, skipping the Toronto and Cincinnati events and undergoing two MRI scans on the problem.
“From the second I found out I was playing Simona, I was actually getting my nails done, I got my phone out and I pulled up YouTube videos of our matches,” she explained.
“The fact that I was able to come out and play that way, beat the No 2 player in the world in the first round of the US Open, it’s been a while, I think those are definitely the emotions that I was feeling.”
Halep’s strategy was to hit down the middle until Sharapova missed or hit a winner and it did not pay dividends in the end.
“I just stayed there,” said Halep on coming back from 1-4 in the second set.
“I didn’t think that I lost the match. I just kept fighting, playing. I feel that I started to play a little bit more relaxed after that score.
“Then I got the confidence back. Actually, I didn’t lose the confidence during the match because I felt that I was very close, also in the first set.
“So it was really well, in my opinion. I mean, I cannot judge myself for not doing something, just the serve, because was a bad serve today.”
Halep was not a fan of Sharapova leaving the court for an extended time after the second set.
“Like always,” Halep said. “I’m used [to it]. When I play against her, she does that all the time. So I didn’t think about that. It’s her style and I don’t comment.”
Johanna Konta’s unheralded loss to No. 78-ranked Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia was earlier in the day, also in three sets, 4-6 6-3 6-4.
In the end, Krunic just hung around long enough to win, blunting a lot of the Brit’s power, and in the third set breaking at 3-3 after a flurry of unforced errors and misguided net approaches by Konta.
“I don’t think I necessarily played my best tennis, but my opponent also had something to say about that,” Konta said.
“She played very freely, I felt, and she moved incredibly well. She made it very tough for me to be able to get any easier points.”
Despite her No 7 seeding, Konta apparently was not brimming with confidence entering Flushing Meadows.
“I think it would be quite obnoxious of me to come in here expecting I have a right to be in the second week,” she said.
Top 10-seeded winners on opening day were No 3 Garbine Muguruza bageling American Varvara Lepchenko 6-0 6-3, No 5 Caroline Wozniacki beating Romanian Mihaela Buzarnescu 6-1 7-5, and No 9 Venus Williams slogging past Slovak Viktoria Kuzmova 6-3 3-6 6-2.
“First round’s always, you know, tricky,” Wozniacki said after beating the qualifier Buzarnescu.
“You just want to get through them, get them done, and move on, especially in Grand Slams. I was happy to finish off in two sets.”
Petra Kvitova, who many thought may not play again, beat the former World No 1 Jelena Jankovic of Serbia, 7-5 7-5, on Monday to reach the second round of the US Open.
It was a bit of a miracle because the Czech 13th seed only returned to competition in May, five months after being stabbed in her hand by an intruder at her home.
She has been in search of top form after a mediocre build-up to the year’s final Grand Slam and struggled to adapt to Jankovic’s counter-punching style, eventually wearing down the 2008 runner-up to set up a meeting with France’s Alizé Cornet.
Kvitova won the first set that featured three breaks of serve as both players struggled to find their range in the temporary Louis Armstrong Stadium.
She rallied back from 2-0 down in the second set but dropped serve again in the seventh game.
Kvitova regained her composure to win four consecutive games and secured the win on her first match point with a sizzling forehand winner down the line, scrapping her way to victory 7-5 7-5.
It was a grunt-free, first-round match between two wily veterans in the temporary structure.
With Monday’s victory, Kvitova avenged the result of the pair’s last meeting, in the third round of Wimbledon in 2015, in which Jankovic won a two-hour, three-set match to prevent Kvitova from defending her 2014 Wimbledon title.
Kvitova also proved that her left hand can withstand serves over 100 mph to her forehand.
This tournament marks the leftie’s eighth tournament and third major following extensive surgery on her left hand following the brutal knife attack at her home on 20 December last year.
For Jankovic, Monday’s first-round loss in her 14th consecutive US Open main draw means that the 28-year-old Serb has not advanced past the round of 16 since her 2008 run to the final, when she lost to Serena Williams in straight sets.
In other results, top seed Kristyna Pliskova of the Czech Republic beat Japan’s Misa Eguchi 6-2 6-2 while the American wild card Sofia Kenin defeated 32nd-seeded American Lauren Davis 7-5 7-5.
Other upset-minded players were Aussie Ashleigh Barty coming from a set down to beat No 21 Ana Konjuh 4-6 6-0 6-1, and Greece’s Maria Sakkari ousting No 24 Kiki Bertens 6-3 6-4.