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Sharapova tops Halep at U.S. Open in Grand Slam return

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    Sharapova tops Halep at U.S. Open in Grand Slam return

Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY, AFP/Getty Images

Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain continued her hot summer, easily beating American Varvara Lepchenko at Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain continued her hot summer, easily beating American Varvara Lepchenko at Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY, AFP/Getty Images

Sharapova tops Halep at U.S. Open in Grand Slam return

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NEW YORK — When Maria Sharapova’s first Grand Slam match after a 15-month doping suspension ended with a victory Monday night at the U.S. 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 beat the second-seeded Simona Halep 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.

“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 went up 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 U.S. Tennis Association did grant a wild card to Sharapova, who was once ranked No. 1 but is currently 146th.

Sharapova compiled 60 winners Monday, 45 more than Halep — her way of declaring, “I’m back.”

Halep was among eight women who entered the U.S. 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 lived 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, Sharapova must be considered a serious title contender. She did, after all, win the U.S. Open in 2006.

Sharapova versus Halep was a tremendously entertaining contest, more befitting a final than a first-rounder.

They traded stinging shots, often with Sharapova — dressed in all black, from her visor, to her dress that sparkled under the lights, to her socks and shoes — aiming to end exchanges and Halep hustling into place to extend them.

Points would last 10 or 12 strokes, or more, repeatedly leaving a sellout crowd of 23,771 in Arthur Ashe Stadium clapping and yelling and high-fiving, no matter which player won them. The umpire repeatedly admonished spectators to hush.

Earlier Monday, seven-time major champion Venus Williams picked up a 6-3, 3-6, 6-2 victory against Viktoria Kuzmova of Slovakia, a 19-year-old qualifier who is ranked 135th, joining past Wimbledon winners Garbiñe Muguruza and Petra Kvitova in the second round.

But No. 7 seed Johanna Konta, a Wimbledon semifinalist just last month, was bounced by 78th-ranked Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

And in another surprise, 13th-seeded Jack Sock of the United States was eliminated 6-2, 7-6 (12), 1-6, 5-7, 6-4 by 73rd-ranked Jordan Thompson of Australia.

Brain Mahoney is an Associated Press writer.

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