By Jane Voigt
If you’ve been around the tennis court a time or two you’ll remember the 2009 U.S. Open. That’s the year Kim Clijsters beat Serena Williams in the semifinals. She was the number one seed. Kim was on the comeback trail and entered into that Open as a wild card. Much the same as Maria Sharapova has been entered into this Open as a wild card.
Clijsters went on to win the title in 2009, becoming the first wild card to win a major in the Open Era (since 1968). She had earned the entry because, basically, she asked for it and was granted it by the U.S.T.A. She had won her first Open in 2005 and retired soon after to start a family. Her comeback trail was an awesome story, at the time. A mother, athlete and Grand Slam champion willing to build a second career.
Sharapova is also on the comeback trail, but her story is different. She is different, in the eyes of fellow tour players and the vocal at-large opinionators. Clijsters was well-respected and even loved by her fellow competitors. Sharapova, not so much. She keeps herself to herself, not mingling beyond that which is required to be civil and fulfill tour agreements.
Sharapova didn’t take a 15-month break to have a child, either. She was suspended for using a banned substance. Last night was the first time she’d played a major in 18 months. She began her return in April, was not granted a wild card in the qualification tournament at Roland Garros, pulled out of Wimbledon with an injury, and then pulled out of two more summer hard-court tournaments with another injury. A sputtering attempt to right herself in the only environment she’s known – competitive tennis.
Yet last night Sharapova did more than beat the number-two seed, Simona Halep. Sharapova became only the second woman in the Open Era to upset a top-two seed at a major since Clijsters. Sharapova won her first Open in 2006. Will she run the draw, as did Clijsters, and win her second Open? The question has footing this morning.
“Look, I’ll enjoy this for a little bit more time, then I have to move on,” Sharapova told the press, after her match. “But, I definitely have to value the feeling I have now. 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. I will enjoy it, then move on to the next one.”
Sharapova should not have won this well-hyped match when looked at through the lens of logic. She had no match experience, having played one sanctioned match since May. Anyone knows that matches make for confidence. Yet that’s not the case with Sharapova. She is a steely competitor and has 5 Grand Slams to prove it. Halep, on the other hand, does not. She also had not beaten Sharapova in six meetings.
“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.”
That’s how focused is Maria Sharapova. It certainly got her through the match … the first on Arthur Ashe for the evening opening-night session. She was received well and played well, winning 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. She served better. Her tactics worked time after time, especially hitting behind Halep and well-timed drop shots. Halep put up a fight, coming back in the second set from 1-4 down. But her serving speeds, which hovered well below 90 m.p.h., were easy pickings from the tall Russian.
“Despite not playing a lot of matches coming into this, it almost seemed like I had no right to win this match today,” Sharapova said. “And I somehow did. I think that is what I’m most proud of.”
Sharapova is now 18-0 in night matches on Arthur Ashe Stadium. In 2006, when she beat Justine Henin in straight sets, Sharapova wore a black sequenced dress from Nike. The comparison to her black, lacy and crystal-studded dress she wore last night is uncanny. Does it mean anything? Probably not. No one has ever won a Grand Slam based on their kit.
Next up for Sharapova is Timea Babos of Hungary. The two have never met. Yet the results of her second-round encounter will send another signal to the woman in the draw, even if last night’s result shouted ‘I’m back.’ Her section does not suggest much peril, either. Johanna Konta, the number seven seed, was upset yesterday by on-again off-again Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia. Ash Barty beat the 21st seed Ana Konjuh. Other seeded women are there, but Sharapova’s chances are also there.
“I love the opportunities. I love the challenge, ” she said. “That’s what I play for. If that’s not it, where are you going to find the drive? Where are you going to find the inspiration? These are the moments that inspire me.”