Earlier in the month, Justin Gatlin, a former doping cheat, was booed by the London crowds as he sprinted to a gold, stealing the moment of glory from Usain Bolt who was running the last 100m dash of his career.
But any such moral outrage was restricted mainly to the locker room as Maria Sharapova was welcomed to the Grand Slam stage, her first since a 15-month doping suspension, at the US Open last night. The French Open and Wimbledon had pulled the rug from under her comeback to tennis by refusing to grant her wildcard entries, saying they could not turn a blind eye for the reason she had been out of the game, which had seen her ranking plummet. New York, in turn, laid out the red carpet and gave her the tennis equivalent of a drum-roll: a wildcard into the main draw and a prime-time match in front of a sell-out Arthur Ashe crowd.
Despite the sheen coming off since her doping offence, Sharapova’s star has enough gravity and her game enough grit to pull the people in.
In her return-to-centrestage match against the Simona Halep, Sharapova wasn’t just the blonde in the little black dress. She was prepared to get down into a street brawl. And she was often required to do that, before she shook off the untiring Halep 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 in two hours and 42 minutes. Sharapova, known as the Ice Queen, crumpled to her knees and shed a few tears into her hands before drinking in the applause from the 24,000-strong crowd.
“We have competed so well in the past and produced such good tennis. Despite not playing a lot of matches coming into this, it almost seemed like I had no right winning the match today,” said Sharapova, who had regained her composure by the time she made way for her press conference. “And I somehow did, and that's what I am most proud of.”
History suggests that Sharapova clearly had the edge in this match-up. The two had met six times, and the Russian had won each of them, including the French Open final in 2014. The Russian, a five-time Grand Slam champion, knows how to turn it up on the grand stage.
But she is still to hit the straps since coming back from her doping ban in April. Sharapova has played only four tournaments since her return, only one match since her clay season came to a rough end. Having been flung into the pro-circuit after a 15-month hiatus, the body has creaked with thigh and arm injuries. Moreover, Halep had come a long way since their last meeting at the WTA Championships in 2015. The tiny Romanian has fought her way to No 2 in the women’s rankings, made her second French Open final this season and has done quarter-finals or better since.
Sharapova was the underdog, ranked 146 in the world, and swimming against the sentiment that she was being given preferential treatment by tournaments, who handed her a wildcards rather making her work her way back to the top league again.
All of that evaporated into the New York night as the match began at high-octane. Sharapova isn’t quite the player who last played a Grand Slam in January 2016, but she had enough firepower to relentlessly test Halep’s legs and patience. The Romanian defended bravely, but her serve just didn’t give her enough leeway against the looming presence of Sharapova. The Russian was able to wrest the lead, breaking the Halep serve twice to go up 4-2. Even though the latter was able to break back and level the set, Sharapova’s cracking winners kept fuelling the fire. She struck 28 of her 60 winning shots in the first set to take it 6-4 after an hour-long struggle. It was only the first round, but the tempo of the match the spectators riveted.
As valiant as Halep is in defence, her Grand Slam dreams have been undone by big-hitting players this summer. First Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open final and then Johanna Konta, in the Wimbledon quarter-finals, had been able to overpower her by hitting flat and fast winners. It looked like more of the same when she went a set and 1-4 down.
But that’s when Sharapova inexplicably seized. Maybe the Russian hadn’t quite found the staying power in a tightly-contested Grand Slam match. She won only one of her 11 break points in the set and made 27 unforced errors to 19 winners to surrender the set. If Sharapova was trying to win over any of her critics, it didn’t really help when she opted to take a bathroom break at the end of the set. The strategic break was not just so she could calm herself down, but also to disrupt Halep’s building momentum from five straight games.
But Sharapova wasn’t there just to win hearts, but to win a match. She has made a career blowing hot and cold, combining raw intensity — punctuated by those grunts — with a dispassionate coolness.
The break seemed to help. Sharapova’s laser focus was back and she jumped to a 3-0 lead. She held on to it, despite Halep scurrying the baseline to keep herself in the match. But it was all over when the Romanian sent a forehand long, shutting her out of the US Open and contention for the world No 1 spot.
“I think I gave everything I had,” Halep said. “She was better.”
As for Sharapova, it may mark the beginning of another high. She seemed a little rusty, weaving in 64 unforced errors with 60 winners and converted only five of her 22 break opportunities. But it was just the kind of gutsy win that the Russian needed to scream back into contention.
Updated Date: Aug 29, 2017 21:24 PM