NEW YORK, NY, USA - Maria Sharapova silenced the doubters with a dramatic three-set victory over an in-form No.2 seed Simona Halep, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. The win was the former WTA World No.1’s seventh straight over the Romanian, and brought her to 11-0 in US Open first rounds.
Here’s three quick thoughts from the first classic match of the 2017 US Open:
1. Both women came to play: Halep had played well all summer, reaching the semifinals of the Rogers Cup and finishing runner-up at the Western & Southern Open. Sharapova had only played one match since Rome, a three-setter over Jennifer Brady at the Bank of the West Classic, one that led her to pull out of the remaining US Open Series tournaments due to a left forearm injury.
Few knew what to expect from the 2006 champion playing her first US Open since 2014, but both women brought their best tennis to what quickly became one of the best first round matches in Grand Slam history.
"I was excited. I was looking forward to it," Sharapova said after the match. "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 and started studying our matches."
Sharapova struck a stellar 60 winners, dictating play from first ball and ending the match with a relatively clean -4 differential to win her 18th in a row under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium and book a second round clash with Timea Babos.
"I felt like going into this match, I knew my game plan. It's one thing knowing what you want to do and it's another thing executing it. I haven't been on court much in the last few weeks, not as much as anyone that's in the draw this week.
"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."
Halep’s numbers hearken back to the Roland Garros final, where she made precious few mistakes throughout the nearly three-hour match, hitting 14 in total. But just like that fateful Saturday against Jelena Ostapenko, she couldn't quite match Sharapova’s firepower, making no more than 15 winners of her own. Still, the two-time French Open finalist stood up to the pressure and saved 17 of 22 break points faced and won the last five games of the second set to level a match she was five points from losing, 6-4, 6-1.
In the end, Sharapova’s serve held up when it mattered most, helping her saving a break point in the final game before booking her a spot in the second round. Halep echoed that sentiment after the match.
"What can I say? Much I cannot say," she said to open her post-match press conference. "But I'm sad, of course, to lose this match. But I think I give everything I had. She was better. She was serving better. My serve was very bad today.
"I didn't have the timing, the feeling. I don't know why. Maybe because it was night. It's always different. I didn't practice night. But these are excuses."
2. This was a big win for Sharapova: The former WTA World No.1 endured her share of difficult moments in coming back from serving a 15-month suspension for an anti-doping violation. Injuries curtailed her clay and grass-court seasons, and one had to wonder if the Russian would even make it to Flushing after pulling out of all three planned US Open Series appearances.
"Just looking back at August 12th, it was not a fun day: getting the MRI in Cincinnati and the result of it, speaking to a doctor, flying to New York, getting another opinion, with the thought that I might miss the US Open."
None of that mattered on match point as Sharapova dropped to her knees in a move reminiscent of her last Grand Slam triumph at the 2014 French Open where, ironically enough, she beat Halep in three sets.
"Looking back at that and seeing where I am today, it's pretty amazing that I was able to produce that tennis because it wasn't there in the days leading up to this tournament."
She thanked her team, coach Sven Groenefeld and longtime agent Max Eisenbud, for being by her side in good times and bad, and addressed her ever-compelling dichotomy between image and athleticism.
“Behind the sparkly dress and all these Swarovski crystals,” she said during her on-court interview, gesturing towards her gem-encrusted jacket designed by Riccardo Tisci, “is a girl with a lot of grit, and she’s not going anywhere.”
3. The battle for WTA World No.1 is wide open: Despite Halep’s loss, the Romanian still has a shot to wrest the top spot from current No.1 Karolina Pliskova, but more importantly, the field remains as large as ever. A win tonight from the No.2 seed would have eliminated seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams from contention, but the American, who outlasted Grand Slam debutante Viktoria Kuzmova in three sets earlier in the day, is still in the hunt alongside Pliskova, Garbiñe Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, and Caroline Wozniacki.
Muguruza could eliminate Halep from the race by reaching the fourth round, but as far as the No.2 seed was concerned, "I'm gone now. I'm out of the list."
Despite the disappointment of missing out on another opportunity to take over the No.1 ranking, Halep won't wallow in this defeat.
"I feel I'm a very lucky person that I have this life, the chance to play in the top for so many years.
"I've played finals. I think I didn't play good enough to win those matches. In others, maybe I gave up in some matches. Not giving up, but I didn't believe much that I can win. That's why I lost. But I'm not thinking that I'm an unlucky person. I'm very lucky."