Tennis: Maria Sharapova's Grand Slam return steals US Open spotlight

Maria Sharapova of Russia in action during a practice session prior to the US Open Tennis Championships in New York City on Aug 27, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (AFP) - Former world number one Maria Sharapova plays her first Grand Slam match since serving a 15-month doping suspension when she faces second-ranked Simona Halep in Monday's US Open night feature match.

Wimbledon winner Garbine Muguruza, seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams, 2014 US Open champion Marin Cilic and German fourth seed Alexander Zverev were also set to appear as play began in Arthur Ashe Stadium on the 20th anniversary of the world's largest tennis venue.

But Sharapova's tale of comeback and controversy will swipe the Broadway spotlight.

"I don't think any tennis fan in the world is not going to have that match on," said US 15th seed Madison Keys. "We all knew it was inevitable she would be back in majors and playing. I'm sure this first round is going to be interesting."

The 30-year-old Russian beauty, a five-time Grand Slam champion whose major titles include the 2006 US Open, tested positive for the blood boosting drug meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open.

Sharapova's comeback began with an April semi-final run at Stuttgart but many rivals complained about wildcard entries she received to assist her fight back to top form.

"When someone has been banned or out of competition, I think you have to work for it a little bit to go and play your tournaments and not help that much sometimes," Spanish third seed Muguruza said Saturday. "You've got to work hard and deserve it again. I think that's the way."

The French Open denied her a wildcard and she missed Wimbledon with a thigh injury, setting the stage for a US Open wildcard organisers defended by saying she was being treated like several past US Open champions.

"Her suspension under the terms of the tennis anti-doping program was completed and therefore was not one of the factors weighed in our wildcard selection process," the USTA said in a statement.

"Consistent with past practice, a wildcard was provided to a past US champion who needed the wildcard for entry into the main draw."

Sharapova, ranked 146th, played only one US Open hardcourt tuneup match before a forearm injury sidelined her. She has missed three of the past four US Opens, reaching the fourth round in 2014 in her most recent New York hardcourt appearance.

It's a tension-packed opener. Sharapova is 6-0 lifetime against Halep, although she last played the 25-year-old Romanian in the 2015 WTA Finals. Sharapova is 10-0 in US Open first-round matches and has won 22 consecutive Grand Slam openers since the 2010 Australian Open.

"It's going to be a big challenge, first round of a Grand Slam, to face her," Halep said. "I feel better and I feel that I'm ready to face her again. I just want to change something. Maybe I can win."

Adding to the drama for Halep is her nemesis appearing in her first match since she squandered her third opportunity in as many months to claim the world number one ranking. She lost her chances in the French Open final and Wimbledon semi-finals, each time after winning the first set, and to Muguruza in the August 20 Cincinnati final.

Zverev, who beat Roger Federer in the Montreal final earlier this month for his fifth title of the year, faces Slam debutante Darian King of Barbados while Croatian fifth seed Marin Cilic meets American Tennys Sandgren.

Muguruza opens against 64th-ranked American Varvara Lepchenko while Williams meets 135th-ranked Viktoria Kuzmova.

Men's favorites Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer begin their US Open journeys on Tuesday.

Top-ranked Spaniard Nadal, who won his 15th Slam crown and 10th French Open in June, meets Serbia's Dusan Lajovic in an afternoon encounter.

Third-seeded Swiss Federer, who claimed this year's Australian Open and Wimbledon titles to push his record Slam trophy haul to 19, has the night feature against US teen Frances Tiafoe.

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