When Maria Sharapova's first Grand Slam match after a 15-month doping suspension ended with a victory at the US Open, she dropped to her knees and covered her face, tears welling in her eyes.

This was merely a win to get to the second round, yes, but it also clearly meant so much more to Sharapova. It meant she was back.

Displaying as much emotion on court as she ever did after one of her five major championships, Sharapova recovered after faltering midway through the match and emerged to beat No 2-seeded Simona Halep 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 over more than 2 hours yesterday.

"Behind all these Swarovski crystals and little black dresses," Sharapova told the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd, "this girl has a lot of grit, and she's not going anywhere."


So much about Sharapova was the same as it ever was: the shot-punctuating shrieks, the aggressive baseline style, the terrific returning, the sometimes-shaky serving.

Another familiar sight: She gutted out a win. "You sometimes wonder why you put in all the work," she said, "and this is exactly why."

After leading by a set and 4-1 in the second, Sharapova showed some fatigue and rust, dropping five games in a row. But in the third, Sharapova regained control by going ahead 3-0, using her power to keep two-time French Open runner-up Halep under pressure.

Sharapova had not played at a Grand Slam tournament since January 2016, when she tested positive for the newly banned heart drug meldonium during the Australian Open.

The 30-year-old Russian was allowed back on the tour this April, but she was denied a wild-card invitation for the French Open the next month. The US Tennis Association did grant a wild card to Sharapova, who was once ranked No 1 but is currently 146th.

It was as if every one of Sharapova's winners yesterday - and she compiled 60, a startling 45 more than Halep - was her way of declaring, "Look out, everybody!"

Halep was among eight women who entered the US Open with a chance to top the WTA rankings by tournament's end. The draw at Flushing Meadows randomly paired the two players, providing a buzz-generating matchup that managed to live up to the hype on Day 1 at the year's last Grand Slam tournament. "I gave everything I had," Halep said. "She was better."

And at an event that began without Serena Williams, who is expecting a baby, and is already missing two of its top seven seeded women - No 7 Johanna Konta, a Wimbledon semifinalist just last month, was upset by 78th-ranked Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 - Sharapova must be considered a serious title contender. She did, after all, win the US Open in 2006 and looks as if she had never been away.

"I expected her to hit everything," Halep said. "Some balls were really good. I couldn't even touch them."

- AP