By Mike McIntyre
It was THE match that everyone was looking forward to as the US Open began on Monday. World No. 2 Simona Halep against wildcard Maria Sharapova, the Former World No. 1 and 2006 champion in New York. And it didn't fail to deliver on the hype.
Sharapova used her serve and aggressive groundstrokes to dictate play against Halep throughout the match but the Romanian found a way to stay with her. Sharapova led 6-4, 4-1 at one point and it looked like her opponent would be unable to make the necessary adjustments in her game to counter. Halep, however, kept her composure and approached each point as a fresh opportunity to get back into the match. She would amazingly reel-off five straight games over a suddenly jittery Sharapova to even the contest at one set apiece.
In the third however, Sharapova's risky and rewarding style of play would prove to be what she needed to pull-off the upset on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Despite holding a 6-0 career advantage over Halep coming into the match, Sharapova's limited match play this summer while she has dealt with injuries certainly afforded the No. 2 Halep the status as favorite.
Halep's groundstrokes were up to the task but her serve was not. In particular, Sharapova was consistently crushing the Halep second serve with both her forehand and backhand. There was no escaping the punishment from the Russian on this night, no matter what side Halep selected. Sharapova would advance with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 victory in a 2 hour and 44 minute opening night thriller. The New York crowd was on the receiving end of a performance worthy of a Grand Slam Final.
Sharapova summed-up her unexpected victory by saying, "Despite not playing a lot of matches coming into this, it almost seemed like I had no right to win this match today. And I somehow did. I think that is what I'm most proud of."
With No. 7 seed Johanna Konta also falling on opening day, the draw has opened right up for Sharapova who suddenly has a nice path towards the semi-finals. In her way, of note, is potentially Sloane Stephens who has made the semi-finals in both Montreal and Cincinnati this summer. Sharapova would have until the quarter-finals for that potential encounter.
Up next for Sharapova is the 59th ranked Timea Babos on Wednesday. The pair have never faced each other and on paper, it is now clearly Sharapova who is the favorite. After her win over Halep, Sharapova was uncharacteristically emotional on the court with tears welling in her eyes. We will see if she can recover emotionally from such a draining first round match to deliver on expectation.
In the meantime here are some photos from last night courtesy of Jimmie48 Photography who captured the magic of perhaps the greatest first round match we've ever seen at the US Open.