NEW YORK, NY, USA - Moments after defeating the No.2 seed Simona Halep under the lights at Arthur Ashe Stadium, Maria Sharapova fell to her knees, overcome with emotion.
The 2006 champion, into the US Open with a wildcard, hadn’t played the tournament since 2014, and her return to tennis after serving a 15-month suspension was marked by false starts and injuries.
But throughout it all, Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam champion, held the drive to return to the sport’s biggest stages as her biggest motivation.
“My philosophy is you don't train on all of those back courts, you don't train in the early mornings, in tough conditions, just by yourself, not to want to play in the biggest matches that are in front of you,” Sharapova said in her post-match press conference.
“I love the opportunities. I love the challenge. That's what I play for. If that's not it, where are you going to find the drive? Where are you going to find the inspiration? These are the moments that inspire me.”
It doesn’t come much bigger than drawing World No.2 Halep as her first match. The Romanian was one of the most in-form players heading into the year’s final Grand Slam, with a final in Cincinnati and at the French Open under her belt, as well as a semifinal run in Toronto. Sharapova, by comparison, had won just one match since May and had pulled out of most of the US Open Series citing injuries.
But even with her competition in the US Open still up in the air, the former World No.1 didn’t waste a minute in getting ready for her upcoming opponent.
“[When] I found out I was playing Simona, I was actually getting my nails done, and I got my phone out and I pulled up YouTube videos of our matches and started studying our matches,” she said.
“I knew what a difficult matchup this would be, how much excitement was behind this matchup and the hype. That all goes to the fact that we've just competed so well against each other in the past.
“Despite not playing a lot of matches coming into this, it almost seemed like I had no right to win this match today. And I somehow did. I think that is what I'm most proud of.”
Being back at Flushing Meadows for the first time in three years, Sharapova couldn’t wait to be back on the biggest stage in all of tennis - the Arthur Ashe Stadium - even if it was just for a practice session.
“When me and my coach first scheduled my practice on center court, actually it got moved because they had some maintenance issues. I was upset about it because I really wanted that first practice on center court. 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.”
After over two hours and 40 minutes of grueling tennis on Day 1 of the US Open, it was Sharapova who emerged victorious in three sets. The Russian fell to the ground, overcome with emotions, and even shed a couple of tears at her chair.
That’s because, according to Sharapova, she’s allowing herself to savor every moment of her return - she’s not taking any part of it for granted.
“I'll enjoy this for a little bit of time, then I have to move on. But I definitely have to value the feeling that I have now. I think that's important.
“I can't take that for granted: I can't take the level for granted, I can't take my emotions for granted. This is a big win for me, and I will enjoy it, then move on to the next one.”