NEW YORK (AP) No one, not even Maria Sharapova herself, knew quite what to expect from her return to Grand Slam tennis at the U.S. Open.
It had been 19 months since she had entered a major tournament. She played only nine times anywhere since returning from a 15-month doping suspension in April. Two three-set tussles into her stay at Flushing Meadows, it’s clear that Sharapova’s game might be patchy, but she is as capable as ever of coming up with big strokes in big moments – and maybe, just maybe, could stick around for a while in a depleted draw.
Sharapova became the first woman into the third round at the U.S. Open by using 12 aces to help set aside a poor start and coming back to beat Timea Babos of Hungary 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-1 on Wednesday in Arthur Ashe Stadium. It was the highlight of a busy day that featured 87 singles matches on the schedule after rain washed out most play a day earlier.
“It wasn’t my best tennis,” Sharapova acknowledged in an on-court interview. “It felt like it was a scrappy match.”
Sure was, particularly in the early going. Sharapova made a whopping 19 unforced errors in the first set alone, including a pair of missed forehands that handed over the opening set to the 59th-ranked Babos. But as the match went on, Sharapova looked more and more like someone who used to be ranked No. 1 and owns five major titles – including the 2006 U.S. Open – than someone who needed a wild-card invitation from the U.S. Tennis Association because she is now 146th, on account of her ban and lack of play.
“In the second set, I just felt like I was physically fresh and that gave me a lot of confidence,” said the 30-year-old Russian, who wore a strip of black tape on the left forearm that bothered her earlier in the month. “I just wanted to be fittest player out there in the end, and I really felt like I was.”
She cut down her miscues to 12 unforced errors in the second set, then just five in the third, and finished with a 39-13 advantage in winners, looking as strong as she did while eliminating No. 2 seed Simona Halep in a three-set thriller in Ashe on Monday.
“It was definitely tough to control the emotions yesterday, because as much as you want to be happy about that match and what I accomplished there, you want to move on really fast,” Sharapova said. “And so finding that balance is really hard. Today I felt like going into the match I just wanted to get it done. And I did.”
Not quickly, though: She already has spent nearly 5 hours on court, and so perhaps the yelling and fist-pumping she showed at the end against Babos were as much a reflection of a sense of relief as celebration.
If her 14 return winners were a key to getting past Halep, it was Sharapova’s serving that really made a difference down the stretch against Babos: She won 16 of the last 19 points she served.
With so many matches going on, there were plenty of names to keep tabs on. Two other past U.S. Open champions, Juan Martin del Potro and Svetlana Kuznetsova won in the afternoon, while two-time winner Venus Williams faced Oceane Dodin of France at night. After that, 2008 Australian Open runner-up Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was scheduled to meet 18-year-old Canadian qualifier Denis Shapovalov.
There was a mix of first- and second-round matches thanks to Tuesday’s postponements, and No. 14 Nick Kyrgios, No. 22 Fabio Fognini, No. 26 Richard Gasquet and No. 27 Pablo Cuevas all lost their openers. Two top-10 men whose opening matches also were delayed – and will have to get back on court Thursday – expended little energy: No. 6 Dominic Thiem beat Alex de Minaur 6-4, 6-1, 6-1, and No. 7 Grigor Dimitrov was a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 winner against qualifier Vaclav Safranek.
The only seeded woman to exit in the afternoon was No. 19 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, beaten 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 by Christina McHale of the U.S.