Tuesday, August 29, 2017

US 1.5 - The Cat in the Hat Comes Back

"It's primetime, baby. I love it."

And, with those words, Maria Sharapova officially returned to the grand slam winner's circle on Night 1 of this U.S. Open.

While #2-seeded Simona Halep had to look at her (bad)-luck-of-the-draw 1st Round match-up with wild card Sharapova, back in her first slam since her pre-suspension QF run at last year's Australian Open, as an unfortunate truth -- one that wouldn't have happened had she taken advantage of her recent chances to ascend to the #1 ranking (and the top of the women's bracket), the Russian saw it as an opportunity.

And that might be, as we currently stand, the major difference between a player with a Career Slam in her back pocket and one still seeking her first major title.

Sharapova has/had what Halep desires, shrives for, dreams about and wants. Even with her 6-0 head-to-head record vs. the Romanian (most of then tough matches, including a Roland Garros final in '14 that Sharapova called the toughest of her slam victories), Sharapova's difficulties this season with injuries and closing out matches after such a long layoff put her in the rare position of "playing with house money," as a loss wouldn't necessarily reflect badly on her prospects as she makes her way fully back to form. But Sharapova wouldn't be the player she's been her entire career if she accepted anything other than a win as an expectation. So, playing under the lights on Ashe Court (a situation in which she's never lost a match in a dozen and a half tries), she came prepared to fight, and to emerge with a victory.

And that's what she did. But it wasn't as easy it looked like it was going to be. And, for that, Halep will have to ultimately take heart.

"Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind."
"Dr. Seuss"

Dressed in a crystal-embedded little black dress that recalled a jazzier version of the one she wore during her 2006 title run in New York, Sharapova came out with a determined air, driving shots deep into the court and producing winners from all angles (and often into an open court behind a scrambling Halep) with an in-form forehand that showed no signs of the forearm injury that has dogged her all summer.

Four games in, Sharapova faced her first tight situation, but held in a 14-point game to lead 2-1. She dumped an easy volley on her third BP chance of game #4, but still got the break on her fourth try with a return winner. The speedy Halep raced to a drop shot and put away a volley to break back for 3-2, but wasn't able to back it up, falling behind love/40 and giving the break advantage back to Sharapova in game #6. The back and forth continued, though, when Halep broke right back, then held for 4-4 from love/40, saving a BP.

Yet, Sharapova remained an unrelenting opponent. She already had sixteen forehand winners when she went up 30/love in game #10. Halep had an opportunity to hold, but failed to convert three GP chances, then double-faulted to hand the Russian a set point. A forehand winner off a second serve claimed the opening set at 6-4.

After the disappointment of losing the 1st set, Halep could have thrown in the towel at this point. She's done it before, but has strained herself to the limit to change her penchant for negativity at the behest of coach Darren Cahill and, one would hope, the mental health and well-being of her tennis career. Thankfully, the 2nd set saw the Romanian refuse to give up, and with the help of an inconsistent Sharapova (especially after a racket change in order to have her original re-gripped), she turned back certain defeat and at least gave herself a chance for what would have been a career-defining victory.

Still, Sharapova won six of the first seven points of the set, and Halep had to save two BP in game #2 to avoid an early hole. But Sharapova did break two games later, then saved a BP of her own in game #5. An angled crosscourt forehand winner put her up 4-1, and she held a BP for a 5-1 lead. But the Romanian held serve, and everything changed.

"Day Play. We play all day. Night Fight. We fight all night."

A string of Sharapova errors led to a break to cut the lead to 4-3, then Halep (who ultimately faced at least one BP in every service game of the match, save her very first) saved two BP and held to knot the score at 4-4. Up 15/40 on Sharapova's serve in game #9, she saw the Russian fire an ace and a backhand winner, but then double-fault on BP #3 to give Halep the chance to serve for the set. Sharapova would carve out five BP chances in the game, but errors off her racket prevented her from cashing in on any of them. A Halep ace gave her a SP, and a wayward Sharapova return evened the match. Halep's 6-4 win had included a set-ending five-game winning streak, as Sharapova was just 1/11 on BP chances in the 2nd, and committed more unforced errors (24) than she had winners (19).

After Sharapova used around six or so minutes for the five-minute between-set break alloted for a clothing change, she ran back onto Ashe Court and held serve. After jumping to a love/30 lead on Halep's serve in game #2, she finally got the elusive break for 2-0. Sharapova's stab volley of a shot behind her at the net prevented Halep from reaching BP in game #3, and she held for 3-0. Again, from 15/30 down, the Russian went up 4-1 with a hold that ended with a ball skipping off the net cord and landing inside the corner lines.

This time, though, she found a way to reach the finish line.

Still, even with Sharapova serving for the match at 5-3, Halep again didn't fold. After a night of chasing balls from one side of the court to the other, even while occasionally bending over and seeming to stretch her hamstring (or trying to avoid cramping up?) she raced to a drop shot and won a point with a volley, then saw Sharapova double-fault to make the score love/30. She reached BP with a shot to get back on serve, but netted a forehand down the line attempt. With that one final speedbump behind, Sharapova's moment arrived. A backhand winner finally gave her a match point, and a long Halep shot ended the 6-4/4-6/6-3 match after 2:44, giving the Russian, who hit 60 winners on the night. The match, one of the best ever (and surely arguably the most celebrated) on a Day 1 of any U.S. Open, once again proved just how dependably good this match-up of clashing tennis styles truly is, whether it takes place in a slam final or the 1st Round.

Sharapova was uncharacteristically, but understandly, emotional after the win. After falling to her knees immediately after the match, she was wiping away joyful tears well beyond the handshake between the two respectful opponents at the net, and thanked her team for standing by her in her post-match interview.

For Halep, alas, the wait continues. But she can hold her head high on this night. She held to her word, and didn't give up. Sharapova was just Sharapova, and that proved to be too much to overcome. But she made it close.

"Life’s too short to wake up with regrets. So love the people who treat you right, forgive the ones who don’t and believe that everything happens for a reason. If you get a chance, take it. If it changes your life, let it. Nobody said it’d be easy, they just promised it would be worth it."
"Dr. Seuss"

So, can Sharapova now advance deep into this slam, into the second week, and maybe even challenge to win it? Will her body hold up to the mental and physical grind of a slam schedule that she's hasn't successfully traversed in nineteen months? Well, we'll soon find out, but that's something to be discussed in two days time, or four, or six or more. And we surely will, too, for as long as we're able. But that's not for the immediate afterglow of Night 1.

For, even if it turns out to be for just one night, or the first of many, three years to the day after she last posted a U.S. Open match win, Sharapova was back. Exquisite once more in all her glory. And it's still a sight to behold.

...Caroline Wozniacki got on the board with her 100th career slam match win with a straight sets win over Romanian qualifier Mihaela Buzarnescu, who was making her slam MD debut at age 29.

Meanwhile, a trio of matches completed late in the day session and into the evening added to what turned out -- at least as far as the women are concerned -- to be one of the best opening days at a major in recent memory.

Timea Babos, Sharapova's next opponent, erased a 4-2 3rd set deficit to defeat Viktorija Golubic 7-5/5-7/7-5. Oceane Dodin, in another of those French FC LOLers vs. a Pastry unwilling to play by the FFT's dictatorial rules contests, ousted Pauline Parmentier after the veteran French woman had led 5-2 in the 3rd set and held two MP. Dodin won 3-6/6-0/7-6(6).

And, last but hardly least, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni avoided a second straight 1st Round meltdown at a major by rallying to avoid giving away a certain victory against Monica Puig. At Wimbledon, remember, the AO semifinalist blew a 5-0 3rd set lead to Carina Witthoeft in the 1st Round and was unceremoniously sent out. Today, the #27 seed led Puig 6-4/5-1, and failed to convert on five MP opportunities before going to a deciding 3rd set tie-break. Lucic led there 4-0, only to see Puig even the score, then finally got the victory on her sixth MP.

I was wondering before this slam if the Croatian ending her seven-match losing streak with a New Haven win over Anett Kontaveit might kick-start her to a nice rebound performance in New York after what has pretty much been a lost spring/summer. Well, the same might be said about this result. She'll face Carla Suarez-Navarro (the Spaniard defeated her in Cincinnati) next, with the winner there getting either Wozniacki or Ekaterina Makarova.

LIKE ON NIGHT 1: Hampton tellin' it like it is...


ESPN's Chris Fowler going through the whole "how will the crowd react to Maria?" motions at the start of tonight's match, as if there's been any negative reaction from fans at any of Sharapova's matches in her return to action. Most of the snearing commentary has come from the safe havens of social media or behind-her-back interviews with fellow players, many of whom (TPFKAGB) chose to trumpet their opinions with an embarrassing display based on such a reckless, ill-informed notion of the actual facts of the Sharapova case that they'd make the current U.S. Oval Office occupant blush. Well, at least it would if that were humanly possibly, I mean.

2012 Indian Wells 3rd Rd (HC) - Sharapova 6-3/6-4
2012 Beijing 1st Rd (HC) - Sharapova 7-5/7-5
2014 Madrid Final (RC) - Sharapova 1-6/6-2/6-3
2014 Roland Garros Final (RC) - Sharapova 6-4/6-7(5)/6-4
2014 Cincinnati QF (HC) - Sharapova 3-6/6-4/6-4
2015 WTA Championships rr (HCI) - Sharapova 6-4/6-4
2017 US Open 1st Rd (HC) - Sharapova 6-4/4-6/6-3

All for Night 1. More tomorrow.


Blogger Eric said...

My fave: "This girl isn't going anywhere."

Tue Aug 29, 02:20:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Galileo Sutherland-west said...

I totally called this:p

Tue Aug 29, 03:27:00 AM EDT  

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