NEW YORK • Playing in her first Grand Slam after a 15-month doping ban and limited to just one hard-court warm-up match, Maria Sharapova conceded she did not deserve to come away with a first-round win over second seed Simona Halep at the US Open on Monday.
But the 30-year-old Russian belied her own self-doubt with an impressive three-set win over the Romanian to thrust the former world No. 1 back into the spotlight as the toast of the Big Apple.
"Not playing a lot of matches coming into this, it almost seemed like I had no right to win this match today," the 2006 US Open champion told reporters after her 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory. "I somehow did and I'm proud of that."
It had been three years since Sharapova last appeared at Flushing Meadows and by the end of Monday, both the sell-out crowd and the five-time Grand Slam winner were aware of just how much they had missed each other.
When Halep's return sailed long to give Sharapova the victory, the Russian dropped to the court and covered her eyes while the Arthur Ashe crowd stood and roared.
She later battled back tears as she blew kisses to spectators, sobbed at times and mouthed "Thank you" to fans that were devoted throughout the 2hr 45min drama.
Men's 1st rd Sam Querrey (USA) bt Gilles Simon (Fra) 6-4 6-3 6-4, Lu Yen-hsun (Tpe) bt Karen Khachanov (Rus) 4-6 6-2 6-3 6-3, Jordan Thompson (Aus) bt Jack Sock (USA) 6-2 7-6 (14-12) 1-6 5-7 6-4, Gilles Muller (Lux) bt Bernard Tomic (Aus) 3-6 6-3 6-4 6-4, Alexsander Zverev (Ger) bt Darian King (Bar) 7-6 (11-9) 7-5 6-4, Denis Shapovalov (Can) bt Daniil Medvedev (Rus) 7-5 6-1 6-2, Mikhail Kukushkin (Kaz) bt David Ferrer (Esp) 4-6 6-3 6-2 6-1, Marin Cilic (Cro) bt Tennys Sandgren (USA) 6-4 6-3 3-6 6-3.
Women's 1st rd Caroline Wozniacki (Den) bt Mihaela Buzarnescu (Rom) 6-1 7-5, Venus Williams (USA) bt Viktoria Kuzmova (Svk) 6-3 3-6 6-2, Petra Kvitova (Cze) bt Jelena Jankovic (Srb) 7-5 7-5, Garbine Muguruza (Esp) bt Varvara Lepchenko (USA) 6-0 6-3, Zheng Saisai (Chn) bt Alison van Uytvanck (Bel) 6-4 3-6 6-1, Ashleigh Barty (Aus) bt Ana Konjuh (Cro) 4-6 6-0 6-1, Peng Shuai (Chn) bt Amandine Hesse (Fra) 6-4 6-1.
"When I found out that I received the wild card, I was obviously extremely excited," said Sharapova, who had been denied a similar entry into the French Open and missed Wimbledon qualifying due to injury.
"I realised how long it had been since I played at the US Open. When me and my coach first scheduled my practice on centre court it got moved because they had some maintenance issues. I was upset.
"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."
She stepped out onto the court having won all six previous meetings with Halep, yet despite her statistical domination, victory was far from assured. She had not played in a Grand Slam since the Australian Open last year, after which she was handed the ban for testing positive for meldonium.
Her comeback has been slowed by a thigh injury that forced her out of the Italian Open in May and more recently left arm issues that took her out of the second round at Stanford earlier this month, putting her US Open participation in jeopardy.
Sharapova, however, did not show any signs of injury when she created 22 break points, many through her 28 forehand winners, but converted just five of them.
In total, she swatted 60 winners, while Halep had only 15 winners against 14 unforced errors. There were however, 64 unforced errors by the Russian.
The rust remains and, today, the unseeded Hungarian, Timea Babos, who earlier saw off Switzerland's Viktorija Golubic 7-5, 5-7, 7-5, gets to see if Sharapova can back it up in the second round.
"It was very tough, not like first-round matches. But this is the draw. She was better," said Halep. "I'm sad, of course, losing this match, but I think I give everything I had."
One thing the 25-year-old does not consider herself is unlucky, despite an opener against Sharapova.
"I'm a very lucky person that I have this life, the chance to play at the top for so many years," the Romanian added. "I'm not thinking that I'm an unlucky person. I'm very lucky."
EVERY MOMENT COUNTS
When me and my coach first scheduled my practice on centre court it got moved because they had some maintenance issues. I was upset. Those little things you kind of take for granted.
MARIA SHARAPOVA, on cherishing every Grand Slam moment.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN
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