NEW YORK—It was a performance as dazzling as the crystal-encrusted black dress she was wearing as Maria Sharapova warned her US Open rivals that behind the glamour, there’s tons of grit.
The 30-year-old Russian star marked her return to Grand Slam tennis after serving a 15-month doping ban with a thrilling 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory over second seed Simona Halep on Monday.
It was her 50th appearance at a major but first since the quarter-finals of the 2016 Australian Open and her first at the US Open for three years.
But it was like 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 ban had run its course but she was refused a wildcard 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 wildcard 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 hardcourt match of the year.
“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 a thrilling triumph on Monday.
“You never know how you are going to feel until match point but you figure it’s all worth it.”
The eye-catching crystals sewn into her black and lace number were a perfect teaser for TV cameras for the night session on Ashe.
– ‘Prime time, baby’ –
“It’s prime time baby!” she said with a smile. “When I first came to New York I was intimidated by the noise, the traffic, the people. But now I love it.”
“Sometimes you wonder why you put in all the hard work — this is exactly why.”
Sharapova ended with 60 winners and 64 unforced errors and converting just five 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.
However, she is aware that having passed 30 in April, there is a danger of shrinking opportunities.
“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 Cinicinnati events and undergoing two MRI scans on the problem.
Last Friday, she was then drawn to play world number two Halep.
“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.”
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