Maria Sharapova’s comeback to Grand Slam tennis continues, with only slightly less drama and a whole lot more pop.
Sharapova survived an end-to-end slugfest with Timea Babos on Arthur Ashe Stadium court on Wednesday, prevailing, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-1.
Having served a 15-month doping ban that expired in April, Sharapova had not played in a Grand Slam since the 2016 Australian Open. Because of injuries she was limited to four tournaments and nine matches this season. The 2006 Open champion needed a wild card to get into the tournament.
On Monday night she defeated No. 2 seed Simona Halep in three gut-wrenching sets on Ashe that seemed more like a final. Wednesday’s late-afternoon match against the 59th-ranked Babos would have seem marginally easier, but Babos came out swinging for the suites, serving far more potently than the diminutive Halep, and whacking away at her groundstrokes. She threw in enough slice backhands for a couple of pounds of cold cuts, making the 6-2 Sharapova bend precipitously for the returns.
Sharapova was able to take a lot from the Halep match but had to cope with the particulars of playing Babos.
“I definitely wanted to enjoy the quality of tennis that I played with the other night, but I also wanted to put my mind onto this one,” Sharapova said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, no matter who I was going to play today. It’s always difficult to come after a match like that. My goal was just to get it done.”
The Ashe crowd seemed disposed to back Sharapova from the start, but each time they tried to climb on her horse, the saddle slipped. Sharapova was broken in the first game, one of three breaks of her serve in the first set. Babos wouldn’t let her build any momentum, but Sharapova hung in there, forcing a third break of Babos’ serve in the 12th game that pushed the set to the tiebreak that Sharapova ultimately lost.
The second set was similar to the Halep match, though this time instead of Sharapova’s game starting to become vulnerable, it was Babos losing the grip. When she started faulting on her first serve, Sharapova finally was timing her second. Sharapova had gotten a lot of free points by just swatting away Halep’s powderpuff second serve. Against Babos she could at least put her on the back foot to start a rally.
By the time the third set rolled around, Babos was in decline and Sharapova’s ascent finally gave the crowd what it was looking for. She ramped up her ace total, finishing with 12. Sharapova will face American Sofia Kenin in the third round.
Of Kenin, a wild-card entry herself, Sharapova knows little. Of life on the big stage, she knows a lot.
“Look, I certainly have expectations just because I know I’ve been in these stages before and I’ve been able to execute. There’s a certain level of I know I can do this, I’ve done it before,” she said. “I want to have that feeling again. But there’s also the realistic understanding of, OK, you haven’t been in this situation for a while. It’s going to take a little time.”
And right now, a refreshed and apparently healthy Sharapova has time on her side.