The U.S. Open got its screech back Monday night.
Maria Sharapova, playing on a wild card and back in the Open for the first time since 2014, brought her power game and her piercing screams to Arthur Ashe Stadium Court. There she eliminated Simona Halep, who had been the most likely player to exit the Open with the No. 1 ranking. Instead, Sharapova parlayed a strong start with a determined finish for a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory in 2 hours, 44 minutes of stirring tennis.
Sharapova, 30, served a 15-month ban starting in January 2016 for testing positive for the newly prohibited drug meldonium at the Australian Open. She returned to competitive tennis in April at Stuttgart, Germany, where she reached the semifinals, but had played little since because of injuries.
Holding back tears, Sharapova said: “I thought it was another day, another opportunity, another match. It was so much more. Everything you go through is so worth it.”
Because her ranking had fallen precipitously during the ban, Sharapova required wild cards to get into tournaments. When the Stuttgart event gave her one, some players were critical of that decision, including Halep.
“I think I gave everything I had. She was better, and my serve was very bad today,’’ Halep said. “I think it was a very good match for the fans.”
Sharapova, the 2006 U.S. Open champion, missed the 2015 tournament with a leg injury and last year’s because of the ban. The Open had never denied a wild card to a champion, though all of those players were returning from injuries or retirement. Sharapova was denied a wild card to the French Open, and officials cited her doping ban as the reason.
Her fitness coming into the Open was a mystery, though she looked agile and athletic Monday night. She had withdrawn from the Wimbledon qualifying tournament with an unidentified muscle tear, then suffered a left forearm injury at the Stanford tournament in July and hadn’t played since. She played a total of nine matches before Monday night, going 6-3.
Sharapova, who is 7-0 against Halep, won the first set. Halep had no answer for Sharapova’s power. Plus she found herself on the back foot off her serve, powderpuffs on both first and second serve that Sharapova played tee ball with.
So “Screechapova” was back on the big stage, showing up in a basic black sequins dress fitting for New York nightlife. But her sparkly game started to deteriorate in the second set after she had gained another break and had taken a 4-1 lead.
She had Halep down a break point in the sixth game, but Halep fought back to hold serve, then broke Sharapova in the next game. The unforced errors were coming fast and furious from Sharapova and were eating into her game as she dropped the second set.
In the end, Sharapova had that little bit more.
“Behind the Swarovski crystals and the sparkly black dress, this girl has grit, and she’s not going anywhere,” Sharapova said to the roar of the crowd.