August 29, 2017
Maria Sharapova marked her Grand Slam return with a sensational victory over Simona Halep at the US Open.
The Romanian Halep has been bidding to become world number one in recent times, but couldn’t match Sharapova’s power and sheer desire to stay longer on the big stage after the superstar’s 15-month ban for doping.
Eventually Sharapova overcame Simona 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 in front of nearly 24,000 fans, to announce herself as a genuine contender for the big prize in New York.
Halep, who lost to Johanna Konta at Wimbledon when victory would have put her top of the heap, falls agonisingly short too often in the big moments, it seems.
Whether Maria, now 30, will have the staying power to maintain her impressive level throughout a Grand Slam fortnight, when she has been lacking serious tournament action for so long, could be open to question.
But with Britain’s Johanna Konta dumped out at the first hurdle, losing 6-4, 3-6, 4-6 to Aleksandra Krunic, and no nemesis in Serena Williams, Sharapova may start fancy her chances.
Some will still resent the fact that the world number 146 was given a wildcard in order to down Halep.
But she certainly justified her chance, in terms of the ambition and desire she demonstrated in order to prevail.
Put simply, Sharapova went for it. She blasted big winners – 60 of them – and risked unforced errors – committing 64. The gamble paid off.
Maria’s uninhibited return to the big time also delighted the crowds and let’s face it, notwithstanding the incredible tennis played by Garbine Muguruza this year, the women’s game needs another big-hitting contender in the mix.
Whether she is your villain or heroine, Sharapova fits the bill as a major protagonist, and she struts the stage like the former champion she is.
‘It’s prime-time, baby, I embrace every moment of it and I love it,’ she admitted afterwards. And, seeing how she warmed to her task, the New York public seemed to warm to Maria too.
It looked as though Sharapova might have it all her own way when she went 4-1 up in the second, but then Halep hit back with five successive games to level the match.
When the going got tough, the tough got going, though. And that meant Sharapova put on the after-burners.
She also seemed to have a mocking message for those who believed this commercial dream of a sports woman would have to rely on her glamourous side, rather than her tennis talent, from this point on.
‘Behind all these crystals and little black dresses this girl has a lot of grit and she isn’t going anywhere,’ she promised.
Sharapova is back – and she has worked hard to get here. Now that winning feeling could prove addictive.
Maria concluded: ‘You never know what you’re going to feel until you win that match point, but everything you go through is worth it for this moment.’
Soon we’ll see two male superstars in action, players who have also known their share of hard times on the sidelines.
Tennis stars don’t come any bigger than the great Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who play their opening matches later.
Maybe the women’s game needed the return of its own superstars. Maria is already enjoying her comeback.
Serena, you sense, will be even more desperate to return now, once she has negotiated the considerable challenge of childbirth and the first months of motherhood.