Under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Monday night, Maria Sharapova delivered a magnificent performance that was 19 months in the making.
The 2006 champion defeated second-seed Simona Halep 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 in a primetime match that immediately followed the U.S. Open’s Opening Night Ceremony. It was a setting that the Russian star was familiar with as she improved to 18-0 all-time in night matches in Flushing Meadows--but this one had to feel a little sweeter.
“I thought this was going to be just another match but it was so much more,” she told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi on-court after the match. “I didn’t want to think about it. You can’t really control your emotions. We sometimes wonder why we put in all the work. And this is exactly why. There have been a few low points, but I don’t think this is the time to talk about that. Behind all this glitter, this girl has a lot of grit, and she’s going nowhere.”
She displayed that grit on Monday night and came out firing, going for her shots early which resulted in 28 winners to 25 unforced errors in the opening set. The two exchanged breaks of serve throughout the set, but it was Sharapova who got the decisive one to win it before building a 4-1 lead in the second set.
Halep would find her footing and win the final five games to force a decider, but the night belonged to Sharapova. She got the early break in the final set and this time did not let it go, saving the only break point she faced to advance in two hours and 42 minutes.
In all, Sharapova hit 60 winners and committed 64 unforced errors, completely taking the match to Halep to extend her overall record against the Romanian to 7-0.
It was a tough opening round match for the second-ranked Halep, who had to take on a five-time Grand Slam champion coming off a suspension.
“[It] was not like a first-round match. But this is the draw. I cannot say anything else, just that’s it. It’s the luck,” Halep said afterwards. “It’s the luck. It was a tough one for the first round, for sure. But still I think I played okay. She played really well. It was a good match. It was good for the fans.”
Sharapova now moves on to play Hungary’s Timea Babos in the second round.
“I'll enjoy this for a little bit of time, then I have to move on,” she said. “But I definitely have to value the feeling that I have now. I think that's important. I can't take that for granted. I can't take the level for granted. I can't take my emotions for granted.
This is a big win for me, and I will enjoy it, then move on to the next one.”