NEW YORK—“Here I am, baby!” Stevie Wonder sang over the loudspeakers in Arthur Ashe Stadium during the first set between Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep on Monday night. The words could have been written for Sharapova herself.
Here she was, just as we remembered her. There was the stony game face, set off by the sparkling black dress that looked like an update of the one she wore in 2006, when she won the title. There were the line-drive winners into the corners; Sharapova would hit 60 of them on the night. There were the equally hard-hit errors drilled straight into the net or five feet wide; Sharapova would commit 64 of those on the night. There were the aces—seven—when she needed them, and the double faults—seven of those, too—seemingly from out of nowhere, at just the wrong time.
For a set and a half, as Sharapova built a 6-4, 4-1 lead, many of us found ourselves asking, “Has she really only played one match since May?” Instead, it looked as if the 30-year-old had used the time off to make herself a better and more strategic player. Sharapova used her crosscourt forehand especially well, hooking the ball with sidespin and sending Halep into the alley, and then going back there with her next shot for a winner. Sharapova also used her slice backhand effectively, and even finished off one point with a backwards-reaching touch volley that could have been lifted from Pat Rafter’s repertoire. Maria, who was 17-0 in night matches in Ashe before Monday night, was back in her element.
At 4-1 in the second set, she reached break point and had a forehand that could have essentially sealed the win. But she overhit it and missed by six inches. No one knew it then, but the match had turned. Halep seized her chance with a rousing forehand winner and a fist pump, and held serve from there. Halep had spent most of the night in retrieval mode, but she had competed well throughout. She hadn’t felt sorry for herself for drawing Sharapova in the first round, or looked for a reason to be angry about it, and she had matched Sharapova’s intensity from the first point on. Now it was her turn to take the reins.
Despite never finding her rhythm on her serve, Halep came back from 1-4 down and saved five break points at 5-4 to level the match. Sharapova would go 5-for-22 for the night on break points; at this stage, she wasn’t just struggling to convert them, but rather struggling to put a ball in the court on them. By now, the fact that she had played just one match since May had become obvious.
Some things never change, though, and one of those things is Sharapova’s willingness to believe in her shots even when they aren’t working. After taking a long bathroom break between the second and third sets—“like always,” Halep said—Sharapova steadied again. Rather than go for all-out winners, she tried to force errors off Halep’s racquet, and it worked. Up 1-0, she finally broke by forcing Halep to send a backhand long. From there, both women bore down, and Halep again threatened to turn the match around at 3-5 when she lasered a backhand winner down the line to reach break point. But she couldn’t do it twice. On the next point, Halep and Sharapova engaged in the fiercest and loudest rally of the night; finally Halep lined up a forehand, leaped and swung, and hammered the ball into the tape. Sharapova held for the 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 win.
In the end, Sharapova’s advantage on her serve and return were too much for Halep to make up with her superior consistency during rallies.
“I think I gave everything I had,” Halep said. “She was better. She was serving better. My serve was very bad today.”
Halep now has the unfortunate distinction of having lost three of the best matches of 2017 at the last three Slams: to Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open, to Johanna Konta at Wimbledon and to Sharapova here. On the big stage, it’s the player who can take matters into her own hands who will typically triumph. And that player typically won’t be Halep.
As for Sharapova, when it was over, she fell to the court in her traditional Slam-winning pose and started to tear up. Did she belong in this position? Opinions have varied, including those of the Slams themselves. The French Open, citing its commitment to anti-doping, didn’t award her a wild card. The US Open, citing her time served, did. There are legitimate arguments on both sides. While it’s hard to call a return from a doping suspension a heartwarming moment, ultimately the Open had the right to welcome back one of its former champions. The fans in New York cheered Sharapova from the start, and she and Halep gave them their money’s worth with the intensity they brought to the court.
“You sometimes wonder why you put in the work,” Sharapova said, looking around the arena when the match was over. “This is the reason why.”
“It’s prime time, baby,” she added with a laugh. Here she was again, same as she ever was: a winner under the bright lights in Ashe.
(Photos in the story courtesy of Anita Aguilar)
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