Clad in a Swarovski crystal-studded black dress, Maria Sharapova delivered glamor, grit and plenty of pyrotechnic power in a triumphant US Open return tonight.
Contesting her first US Open match in three years, Sharapova slammed 60 winners toppling second-seeded Simona Halep, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3, surging into the US Open second round.
The five-time Grand Slam champion commanded the largest Grand Slam stage in the game raising her record in Arthur Ashe Stadium night matches to 18-0.
“It’s prime-time baby, I love it,” a beaming Sharapova told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi and a packed stadium of 23,771 fans afterward. “Behind all these crystals, this girl has a lot of grit and she’s not going anywhere.”
When Halep’s final backhand sailed beyond the baseline, Sharapova dropped to her knees in an eruption of emotion.
In an audacious display of explosive first-strike tennis, Sharapova smacked 45 more winners than the world No. 2. Drilling deep returns down the line, the Russian wild card ravaged Halep’s second serve, converting five of 22 break points.
It was Sharapova’s first Grand Slam match in 19 months and on one—neither the frenzied crowd, her quick-footed opponent or the former No. 1 herself—quite knew what to expect.
Showing no signs of rust in her first match since Stanford last month, Sharapova sent a clear message of intent to the rest of the field serving with authority, returning with ruthless accuracy and competing with her trademark ferocity.
It was Sharapova’s first Top 10 victory since she defeated then world No. 6 Petra Kvitova in the 2015 Fed Cup final.
Halep, who arrived in New York with a shot to seize the world No. 1 ranking, departed with a clear-eyed view of what went wrong.
“What can I say? I’m sad of course losing this match,” Halep said. “I gave everything I had. She was better. She served better.”
An electric atmosphere gave this opening-round the buzz of a Grand Slam semifinal. Halep, who suffered her seventh loss to Sharapova in as many meetings, was candid in defeat.
“It was in my opinion very tough—it was not like a first-round match, but this was the draw,” Halep said. “I cannot say anything else. It was a tough one, first round for sure. Still, I think I played okay, she played really well. It was a good match. It was good for the fans.”
This blockbuster rematch of the 2014 French Open final pitted Sharapova’s menacing power against Halep’s quickness and consistency.
Serving at 4-5, Halep scraped out of love-30 hole to earn game point, but could not close.
Sharapova made her pay. A double fault gave the former No. 1 a break point. Sharapova clubbed a forehand return winner taking a physical first set in one hour.
The weight and depth of Sharapova’s drives often backed Halep up behind the baseline. Yet, Sharapova showed agility and scrambling ability of her own with several key running strikes as she powered out to a 6-4, 4-1 lead.
Credit Halep for digging in and fighting back. The two-time French Open finalist face a break point that would have put her down 1-5 in the second set.
Undeterred, the 5’6” Romanian reeled off four consecutive games snatching a second set that seemed out of her reach minutes earlier to level the match.
Sharapova, who scattered 27 unforced errors in the second set, embarked on a six-minute bathroom break reminiscent of the 2014 French Open final when she took a seven-minute break after dropping the second set to Halep.
“When I play against her, she does it all the time,” Halep said of the bathroom break. “I’m used to it.”
Returning rejuvenated, Sharapova broke for a 2-0 second-set lead.
A slider serve down the middle followed by a vicious forehand winner confirmed the break. Sharapova cranked a forehand off the top of the tape that settled into the corner as she held for 4-1.
Blasting her trademark two-handed backhand down the line brought Sharapova to match point and when Halep’s final shot sailed long, Sharapova dropped to her knees triumphant after a two hour, 44-minute victory.
“I just thought this was another day, another opportunity and another match—this was so much more,” said Sharapova, whose IMG agent, Max Eisenbud, was in tears when he embraced her in the hallway afterward. “You never really know what you’re going to feel until you’re there. Everything you go through is just for this moment. You sometimes wonder why you put in all the work and this is exactly why.”