NEW YORK • Maria Sharapova made the US Open last 32 on Wednesday, insisting she has instilled renewed fear into her rivals, but has rekindled the love from her fans.
Tennis' former world No. 1 and five-time Grand Slam winner pulled off a 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-1 win over Timea Babos of Hungary.
It was her second three-set match, having seen off world No. 2 Simona Halep on Monday in what was her first Grand Slam match since being hit with a 15-month doping ban last year.
"I think with the way that I played on Monday night, I don't think there are any more questions," said the 30-year-old, when pushed about whether her spot in the tournament was justified.
The 2006 champion, a guaranteed arena-filler, needed a wild card to play in New York after her prolonged absence from the sport had left her with a world ranking of 146.
It was a decision widely criticised, with many insisting she should work her way back into the main draw and not be given a helping hand.
"I definitely feel the respect from the athletes," Sharapova insisted. "Certainly when I play against them, in terms of the level they play.
"That's important to me. I think from a respect level, when you're able to respect your rivals and compatriots, that's really important, and I feel that.
"I've also had an amazing reaction from fans since I've been back, and that's been very special. I felt it while I was away. I felt it in a real presence since I've been back. It's a very special feeling."
But the questions over the ban, imposed when she tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open last year, still keep coming.
After her win over Babos, she was asked how many times she had been drug-tested this year. "At the end of the year, the ITF usually produce those numbers," she fired back.
If Sharapova continues to play like she has in her first two matches, then there are not many players in the field capable of stopping her.
However, there will still be doubts over her endurance to win seven matches in a fortnight, given the injury issues she has experienced in recent months.
Winning back-to-back matches, for the first time since her comeback tournament at the end of April, will provide a confidence boost, though.
Sharapova will look to reach the last 16 today when she faces Russian-born American Sofia Kenin, the world No. 39.
Win or lose, 18-year-old Kenin will be none the richer as her amateur status means she cannot claim the US$144,000 (S$195,750) prize money at the risk of losing a place on her college squad.
But Kenin said she is still looking forward to the challenge of facing Sharapova, her childhood idol.
"I have looked up to her all my life, she's a great player," said the teenager.
"I am really happy she's back. I have a lot of respect for her."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE,THE TIMES, LONDON
US OPEN DAY 5
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