NEW YORK -- Maria Sharapova entered the court Monday dressed all in black, the color worn by villains in old Western movies. It might have been a sponsor's suggestion or her take on standard evening attire for a night out in New York, but the dark tone seemed appropriate given the circumstances.
Since the five-time Grand Slam champion was suspended last year after testing positive for the banned drug meldonium -- a sentence initially set at two years but cut to 15 months on appeal -- she has been cast in the villain's role by some tennis fans and some of her peers, especially when she was given wild-card entries into several prestigious tournaments, including the U.S. Open, after her exile ended in April. She was a rule-breaker but also a big box-office draw; she served her time, but no sentence would have been long enough for those who favor severe punishment for drug cheats.
Because of her ban and some injuries Sharapova had played only one hard-court match this year before she faced world No. 2 Simona Halep of Romania under the lights and amid the breezes that drifted in through Arthur Ashe Stadium's open roof. She hadn't played a Grand Slam match since the 2016 Australian Open and hadn't played at the U.S. Open since 2014. But none of that mattered when she completed a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 upset of Halep, falling to her knees in joy and blowing kisses to a crowd that was more dazzled by her grit than the sparkling crystals on her dress and jacket.
"It almost seemed like I had no right to win the match today," said Sharapova, who is 7-0 in career meetings with Halep and has a 23-match winning streak in the first round of Grand Slam tournaments. "But somehow, I did."
Sharapova, ranked 146th in the world, won with grace and patience and an appreciation for the occasion, the big moments she missed so much during her ban and while she dealt with injuries. "It's prime time, baby. I love it," she said, but she couldn't be sure she'd be in one of the sport's biggest spotlights again, especially when she struggled through some pre-Open practices. She had last played a match in early August, following some World Team Tennis action with the Orange County Breakers, and she wondered about her timing and match-readiness.
"It all just comes down to the fact that I haven't spent much time on the court," she said, mentioning an MRI exam she underwent to determine the nature of a thigh injury that prevented her from playing qualifying rounds before Wimbledon. "Looking back at that to where I am today, it's pretty amazing I was able to provide this kind of tennis."
Sharapova was brilliant at times and rusty at others and her serve was as erratic as ever, but she was gutsy and persistent and hit 60 winners. "I was excited. I was very looking forward to it," she said of the match.
It was yet another cruel loss for Halep, who has had a fine season but lost the French Open final and has squandered all three of her chances to be No. 1. Despite her disappointment she remained admirably positive Monday, refusing to make excuses or endorse the theory she has somehow become unlucky. "I feel that I am a very lucky person to have this life," Halep said. "I think I didn't play well enough to win this match."
Her plan to serve to Sharapova's backhand didn't work, "so she could return it very easy," Halep said. "She was very strong ... and she hits everything."
The first set featured four consecutive service breaks, a stretch that ended with Sharapova holding a 4-3 lead. Sharapova broke again in the 10th game when Halep double-faulted and Sharapova hit a forehand winner to win the set.
Sharapova built a 4-1 lead in the second set before Halep surged and won five straight games. Sharapova, stone-faced most of the match, left the court for a break and returned to win the first three games of the third set. Down 0-30 in the ninth game, she came back to gain the advantage on a backhand winner and won on an error by Halep.
Sharapova cried and laughed as she dropped to the court, later placing her hand over her heart as she waved to a crowd that had seen an unexpectedly entertaining and high-quality first-round match. The darkest days of her career are over, though she will treasure the dark-hued dress that she helped design and wore on Monday. "I have to value the feeling that I have now," she said. "I can't take it for granted."
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