Maria Sharapova providing the sparkle at the US Open

August 29, 2017

Maria Sharapova enjoys cutting business deals, and now looks set to keep her half of the bargain at the US Open this fortnight.

 

After her sensational defeat of second seed Simona Halep under lights on Monday the draw has parted invitingly for her, and in Wednesday's second round she now has the much easier-looking proposition of facing Hungary's world number 59 Timea Babos.

It all looks like working out well for both the 30-year-old Russian and the United States Tennis Association.

 

Guardians of the sport in America, the USTA nonetheless chose to overlook the fact that Sharapova is returning from a 15-month doping suspension in giving her a helping hand wildcard straight into the main draw. She could have been made to play the qualifying event, in line with her ranking.

In return they want drama, headlines and TV ratings for their flagship event, which is badly shorn of several superstars, including Serena Williams.

 

The 30-year-old certainly provided those on the opening night when she overcame Halep 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 with a brutal and brilliant display of power tennis that breached the scurrying Romanian's formidable defences.

The Sharapova train is rolling again, and host broadcasters ESPN are evidently among those eagerly clambering on board.

Sharapova drops to her knees upon victory against Simona Halep

 

Continually skimming over the underlying reasons for her prolonged absence from the sport – being caught using Meldonium after it was outlawed as a performance enhancer – any casual viewer might have thought she was merely coming back from an injury. The two post-match interviews they conducted were particularly unctuous.

 

But then the near 24,000-crowd in the Arthur Ashe Stadium, admittedly among the least sophisticated in tennis, had also responded favorably.

 

They love a winner and they love a show, and Sharapova delivers on both those fronts. Still, you could only wonder what the great man the arena is named after would have made of it all.

Asked later whether it was fair that she was given a wildcard, contrary to what the French Open decided, Sharapova was brusque: 'That's the past, we're past that now,' she said.

 

In fact the most contentious thing on the night was the overlong toilet break she took after the second set (she can hardly be accused of being the only player to exploit this rule) which stalled Halep when she finally had the momentum.

 

After she had won, Sharapova fell to the ground like she had won the title. Once recovered, she told her grovelling on-court inquisitor what the performance meant: 'Behind all these Swarovski crystals and little black dresses, this girl has a lot of grit and she's not going anywhere,' she said.

 

Aside from the clumsy commercial plug there could be little disputing that, and the sparkling outfit she wore was the least of the reminders that she still possesses enormous star quality.

It had been an astonishingly accomplished performance from one who had completed only one tour match since mid-May due to recent leg and forearm injuries.

Maria Sharapova was well received by the crowd in the Arthur Ashe Stadium

 

Had she shown more composure on break points she would have won easily, and there must be every expectation that she will now go deep into the tournament.

 

The top two seeds left in her quarter of the draw (now that Jo Konta has been removed) are No 16 Anastasija Sevastova and the combative Dominika Cibulkova, No 11.

The next few rounds could well be untroubled, perhaps even up to the semi-final, which might bring along Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza.

 

Sharapova is also likely to be helped by playing a surfeit of matches at night on Arthur Ashe. Another measure of her love for the big occasion is the fact that she is now 18-0 in career matches under lights on the sport's biggest stadium court.

If there is a threat it may be in how her body holds up from repeat matches, especially without her former medication to hand.

 

She will be helped here by the Grand Slam format of allowing a rest day between matches, a sometimes overlooked factor in Serena Williams performing so well in the Majors into her mid-thirties.

The only shame is that Williams is not here to test herself against the resurgent Sharapova that showed up on Monday night.

 

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