NEW YORK – For 15 months Maria Sharapova was gone from the world of tennis. It was not a vacation.
Far from it.
The hiatus was imposed on her. It was punitive. It was shaming. Covered by a shadow of controversy, as well as the real possibility of having a surefire Hall of Fame career being indelibly tarnished, Sharapova, for the first time in almost two years, finally was able to cover herself in tennis glory once more on Monday night – even if it was for just two hours and 44 minutes.
In that amount of time, Sharapova, playing in her first Grand Slam match since testing positive for a banned substance and receiving a lengthy suspension from tennis’s governing body in July of 2016, returned to the grandest tennis stage in the most dramatic of fashion, upsetting world No. 2 Simona Halep 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 in a match – and an atmosphere – much more befitting of Super Saturday of US Opens past than the first Monday of a major.
Used to the prestige and standing that allowed her to not think twice about making main draws of majors, her current world ranking of 147 – a byproduct of her inactivity while serving her suspension – meant that, for the time being, she is at the mercy of Grand Slam tournament organizers to present her with a wild card entry into their tournaments. Roland Garros and Wimbledon, majors that she has won a grand total of three times, decided to pass on her for 2017.
It was at the 2016 Australian Open when Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, a substance that had been added to the list of drugs prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) just two months before that year’s Australian Open. After missing three of the four majors this year, Sharapova was given a wildcard into the U.S. Open, something she had not needed since 2003 at Wimbledon.
“I think when I found out that I received the wild card, I was obviously extremely excited,” she said in a solemnly tone after the match. “I realized how long it had been since I played at the US Open. From the moment that I’ve been here, I’ve really understood what this means to me, to be back and to be playing.”
While ring rust and nerves are to be expected after such a long time away from the Grand Slam stage, Sharapova’s return to it came in what has to be considered her most comfortable setting on a tennis court: under the bright lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Sharapova shined, in more ways than one.
Attired in a self-designed black dress, embellished with Swarovski crystals that sparkled in the primetime lights, the former world No. 1 smacked 60 winners in keeping Halep, whom Sharapova had beaten in each of their six previous meetings before Monday night, off balance all night long. After all the glitz, glamour and chatter leading up to the match, all of that emotion manifested itself in the tears that streamed down her face as she knelt to the ground after Halep hit a backhand long on match point.
When the draws came out and she found out whom she was playing, Sharapova was all business in doing her scouting immediately afterward – even if she was treating herself to a little pleasure at the same time.
“From the second I found out I was playing Simona, I was actually getting my nails done,” Sharapova said. “I got my phone out and I pulled up YouTube videos of our matches and started studying our matches.”
Not playing in tournaments far from extinguished her fight and determination, probably increasing her already well-known fighting spirit in attempting to get back to the top of the game. That did not mean she came in to tonight without any doubts, however.
“Despite not playing a lot of matches coming into this, it almost seemed like I had no right to win this match today. And somehow I did. I think that is what I’m most proud of.”
“The fact that I was able to come out and play that way, beat the No. 2 player in the world in the first round of the US Open, it’s been a while, I think those are definitely the emotions that I was feeling.”
Simona Halep, disappointed at the result, was almost at a loss for words after playing the supporting actress to Sharapova’s leading role.
“Much I cannot say,” the 25-year-old Romanian said. “But I’m sad, of course, losing this match. But I think I [gave] everything I had. She was better. She was serving better. My serve was very bad today.”
Halep did not notice Sharapova’s emotions after match point, but understood what it must have meant to her to get back to this point from where she was just a few months prior.
“I think it’s a big victory for her,” Halep said. “She was staying away so many months. She’s coming now. In my opinion, she played really well.”
Away from tennis for almost a year and a half, the win was a huge boost for Sharapova and her psyche, but, as the five-time Grand Slam champion already knows by now, there is barely any time to dwell on it – especially when six more matches will be ahead of her if she hopes for Grand Slam title No. 6.
“Look, I’ll enjoy this for a little bit of time, then I have to move on,” said Sharapova, matter-of-factly. “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 the next one.”
Whatever backlash, ill will or mistrust that might have resided in tennis fans after learning of Sharapova’s suspension seemed to be washed away almost immediately, from the moment Sharapova walked onto the court to the rousing ovations she received from the New York City crowd after every winner she slugged. More than 23,000 fans soaked in the special moment with Sharapova as the Russian lapped up the post-match adulation tearfully and appreciatively.
“So special,” she graciously said about the fan support. “I felt the support in the States, I mean, even just the first match in Stanford [earlier this summer]. It’s a smaller event, a smaller venue, it’s a little bit more intimate. This is obviously a different scale, completely different caliber to anywhere you play in the world. It’s electric.”
It was undoubtedly one of the most emotional wins of Sharapova’s career. After being gone for such an extensive period of time, to come back as if she had never left and having those closest to her by her side though her chastening experience of being a tennis pariah made the win that much sweeter.
“I felt like my team and I have been through a lot,” Sharapova explained. “To be in that moment, to be competing there, to see them with me. Tennis is a very individual sport. You feel like it’s just you most of the time out there. Since I’ve come back, I feel like I’m on a team. You know, I’m not just winning for myself, but I’m winning for everyone that has stood behind me. That is a very special feeling to have.”
Before Monday night, what followed Sharapova wherever she went was skepticism, disappointment and uncertainty. At least for one night, however, Sharapova felt something she has been looking for and finally found amid the chaos and unpredictability in the city that never sleeps.
*Additional reporting done by Adesina O. Koiki, ALOST editor-in-chief.