Maria Sharapova has become an enigma – star quality wrapped up in a cloak of duplicity, some would say, while others are just thankful she is back.
And back she is, big time, shining in the Big Apple.
Ranked a lowly 146, she needed a wild card to enter the draw at the US Open after 15 months off the tour for doping.
In the second set I felt physically fresh and that gave me confidence. I knew she had a difficult first match here so I used that as confidence. I wanted to be the fittest player out there at the end, and I felt I was Maria Sharapova
Many question the validity of that decision, insisting players should work their way back from the bottom of the pile.
Not for her, scrapping her way back.
Instead she was a winner on the biggest stage of the game under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, top billing, and, being the showgirl that she is, delivering a resounding result by dispatching the second-seeded Simona Halep and a contender for the World No 1 spot, out of the tournament.
She was dressed to win in a sparkling black tennis dress and a matching bomber jacket by Riccardo Tisci for Nike, the Swarovski crystals dotting the ensemble shining beneath the stadium lights and looking like evening wear.
“It was always going to be black,” Sharapova said in a recent interview with Vogue. “It wasn’t even a question of what we were going to do for the night matches.”
Some booed when she appeared, while some cheered and others were ambivalent but all watched in fascination as the woman in black displayed the grit that got her to the top in the first place.
The tennis world will forever be divided on the issues surrounding her but there is no doubt she is pure box office.
Fresh off her thrilling victory in front of the sell-out crowd on Monday, the former World No 1 was looking to prove that she has the stamina to back it up when she battled it out against Timea Babos in round two.
It marked the first meeting between the 30-year-old Russian and the 24-year-old Hungarian, ranked 59, who was dispatched by Halep in the third round of last year’s US Open for her best-ever finish at a Grand Slam.
Babos lifted her second career title in February at Budapest but has since failed to reach the final four in her next 16 tournament appearances.
She had never faced Sharapova on tour, and it would be a major upset if she progressed to the third round by beating the Russian.
She defeated Viktorija Golubic of Switzerland in a marathon 7-5 5-7 7-5 first round match of her own behind her commanding serve and potent groundstrokes.
Assuming her 6-foot 2-inch frame could recover sufficiently from Monday’s classic, the more powerful Sharapova was expected to have the upper hand against the shorter 24-year-old from Hungary.
Out on Ashe and wearing a wearing a pink version of the diamond-encrusted black dress for a late afternoon match, with an incongruous long black arm warmer, Sharapova was immediately broken in her first service game.
Babos held before Sharapova levelled proceedings at 2 games all, only to be broken again.
The Hungarian is a gutsy player and she held to 15 to go up 4-2 in front of the packed Ashe stadium.
Sharapova knows she is in the cross hairs of everyone’s arsenals but remains as steely-eyed and determined as she ever was, and held her serve to stay in touch.
Serving 75% of her first deliveries into play, Babos looked to be in charge until she served for the set at 5-4 and an errand forehand found the net to offer a break-back point to Sharapova.
Despite suburb defence, the Hungarian drove another forehand long to concede the game and it was level pegging.
The edgy first set saw both players drop serve three times and, after heading to a tie-break, it was the World No 59 Babos who took it, 7-4.
Undaunted, Sharapova broke immediately in the opening game of the second and went up 2-0 before Babos steadied herself enough to hold and remain in touch.
She slowly regained the upper hand and broke for 2-all before holding to move ahead.
Shrieking ever louder with each strike, Sharapova faced a couple of break points in the next game as her first serve deserted her, but a netted backhand from Babos and a brace of aces saved her.
Once again level, Babos found herself staring at break points at 15-40 but Sharapova fired wide on both.
At her next opportunity she screamed “Come on Maria!” and took the break.
The tide apparently turned as Sharapova held for 5-3 and Babos lost a 40-0 lead on her own delivery, but the Hungarian held firm to force the Russian to serve for it.
After an hour and fifty-one minutes, she did just that.
And she broke immediately to start the decider, consolidating it by delivering her 10th ace of the match to go ahead 2-0.
A more relaxed Babos passed the two-hour mark by holding but then, slowly and inevitably, bowed to the relentlessness of Sharapova, who went up 4-1 and took a stranglehold on the match.
With just three unforced errors in the third set and delivering her 12th ace, the Russian sped to 5-1, crushing any residual resistance in Babos, who faced two match points and succumbed on the second, 6-7(4) 6-4 6-1 in two hours and nineteen minutes.
“It wasn’t my best tennis today, it was a bit scrappy, but sometimes that’s good because you through and you get another chance,” Sharapova said.
The five-time Grand Slam champion, who continues her return from a doping ban, fired 12 aces with 39 winners and 36 unforced errors.
“In the second set I felt physically fresh and that gave me confidence. I knew she had a difficult first match here so I used that as confidence. I wanted to be the fittest player out there at the end, and I felt I was,” she added.
She will play either Sofia Kenin or Sachia Vickery in the third round, fully justifying that controversial wild card.
“From the moment that I’ve been here, I’ve really understood what this means to me, to be back,” Sharapova concluded.
Eighteen-year-old Marketa Vondrousova gave Svetlana Kuznetsova quite a scare in the opening round of the US Open.
The teenager from the Czech Republic won the first set against the No 8 seeded Russian and built a lead in the third, but she failed to convert three match points and allowed Kuznetsova, the 2004 US Open champ, to escape with a 4-6 6-4 7-6(2) victory.
Kuznetsova was only the second Top 20 player Vondrousova, the youngest member of the Top 100, had ever faced.
“Today was very difficult,” Kuznetsova conceded after the match. “I was too tight. I believe it wasn’t my physical condition. It was my nerves.”
In the first set, Kuznetsova was off her game and was broken four times, but the second was much more straightforward when Kuznetsova broke Vondrousova early to take a 4-3 lead and eventually win the set.
In the third set, holding served proved to be elusive once again, so when Kuznetsova was trailing and serving down 5-4, it wasn’t clear whether her serve would be an advantage or a liability.
The 32-year-old Russian staved off three set points and when both players held serve again, the match went to a tiebreak in which Kuznetsova built a comfortable lead and was the first to reach seven points to win the match.
Gavrilova joins Aussie winners
A resounding win for in-form Daria Gavrilova has given Australia’s women’s tennis stars their best start to the US Open in more than 30 years.
Gavrilova extended her hardcourt winning streak to six matches with a 6-2 6-1 rout of America’s Allie Kiick to join Ashleigh Barty, Arina Rodionova and Ajla Tomljanovic as first-round winners.
It is the first time four Australian women have progressed to the second round at Flushing Meadows since 1986.
Hibino takes out Bellis
Japan’s Nao Hibino collected her first Grand Slam main-draw victory after rallying from the brink of defeat to beat local fan favourite CiCi Bellis on Court 17 on Wednesday.
Hibino advanced to the second round with a 6-4 4-6 7-5 win over the American teen, who led by a break late in the third set and served for the match.
Even though Hibino looked in command in the first set behind a pair of breaks around an erratic Bellis performance, the Japanese never looked to be winning the match until she eventually closed it out.
Errors littered Hibino’s performance and frustration grew as she began talking to herself, her team and anyone within earshot who chose to listen.
Bellis broke at love to forge ahead 2-1 in the decider and the outcome barely looked in doubt as Hibino’s manner and body language belied any internal confidence she may have been gripping on to.
All that changed on a dime as soon as Bellis saw the finish line.
The American led 5-3 but looked nervous as she tried to serve out the match, and it was Hibino who was the more composed of the two players as she claimed the final four games to cause the upset.
Hibino is into the second round for the first time in eight Grand Slam appearances.
The 22-year-old will now play either Lucie Safarova or No 26 seed Anett Kontaveit for a spot in the Round of 32.
Vanderweghe defeats Riske
Meanwhile Coco Vandeweghe, who has had a strong showing in two of the three Grand Slams this year, got off to a good start, beating her American counterpart Alison Riske, 2-6 6-3 6-4 in a first-round matchup in Louis Armstrong Stadium.
Vandeweghe was broken twice on her way to dropping the first set 6-2 but the No 20 seed responded by rallying back to win the final two sets.
In the third set, the 27-year-old Riske broke serve twice and was aided by seven unforced errors and three double faults by Vandeweghe to take a 3-1 lead before dropping five of the final seven games.
Vandeweghe won 17 of the final 24 points, including 12 of 14 on her three service games.
“It’s never easy to play one of your really good friends on tour, so that can make for some ugly tennis,” the 25-year-old Vandeweghe said on court after the match.
“I’m one step closer to the end and that’s what I’m happy about.”