Everything about Maria Sharapova’s first grand slam match since her April return from a 15-month doping ban was exaggerated. The venue: New York City’s Arthur Ashe stadium at night, tennis’s biggest, most electric stage. The opponent: world No. 2 defensive specialist Simona Halep, hungry for her first grand slam win. The dress: a black, lacy, crystal-studded number designed by some fancy Italian guy that she name-dropped to anyone who would listen (and that was hard not to read as a self-aware, Taylor Swift-esque nod to her reputation on tour as a villain). The crowd: buzzing and cheering and drinking, rooted solidly behind the glittering five-time grand slam champion.
The table was set and Sharapova served up a perfect win—not an easy one, but not too tough, and with a hearty helping of drama. Sharapova took the first set 6-4 after exchanging five combined service breaks. Then she went up 4-1 in the second, only to see Halep charge back, winning five games in a row to force a third set. Sharapova took a 4-1 lead in the deciding set as well, and that time, she didn’t relent when Halep staged a mini-comeback to push things to 5-3. Sharapova served out for a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 line and then fell to her knees, crying.
Sharapova played incredible, hyper-aggressive tennis. She feasted on Halep’s weak second serves, smashing forehands and backhands down the line for a total of 14 return winners, compared to Halep’s three. She was insatiable, stepping into the court anytime Halep left a ball flat and short or sitting up high and juicy. She racked up 60 winners in total, Halep hit 15—and while she also made a whopping 64 unforced errors, she recouped easy points on her serve, which she mostly smoked up the middle for seven aces and handfuls of limp returns. She kept her cool when she lost the second set after jumping out to such a commanding lead. She averaged 100-plus mph serves. She fist-pumped.
Sharapova’s career record against Halep remains perfect at 7-0, and she’s free to march her way through the draw, buoyed by the fact that she knocked out one of the world’s best players in the first round. It was a momentous win, but even as I marveled at her strength and flair, I wondered how and when she would take her victory and slot in into the perfect, nauseatingly sweet comeback narrative that she’s been peddling since the day she was suspended. I didn’t have to wait long to find out.
In her post-match interview, she thanked her fans, her team, glazed over her previous record against Halep, and dismissed a question about her low moments in the match. She said little of substance, yet still spoke in the wavering voice of someone baring her soul. Then she was asked what she’s learned over the course of the match.
“Behind all these Swarovski crystals and little black dresses, this girl has a lot of grit and she’s not going anywhere,” she said.
The high-end bling, the dress, the tennis, the comeback, it’s all the trappings of Maria Sharapova™, the international businesswoman who still wants to roll out her “lil ol’ me” shtick when the moment calls for it. This brand-consciousnesses is part of the reason why the 30-year-old become the megastar she is today, but it’s also helped alienate her from the other players on tour, to the point where some of them celebrated her overly harsh punishment for what amounted to a relatively minor infraction. All the reasons why so many people strongly root for or against Sharapova were on display at Flushing Meadows last night.
Maria Sharapova deserved her U.S. Open wild card and she deserved her first-round win. She also got just the comeback she wanted—the lights, the action, the plucky line about a girl and her grit. It’ll make for a great scene in the biopic that seems to be playing continuously in her head.