When the 2017 US Open draw came out, all eyes were on one particular match right in the bottom half of the women’s singles competition. A repeat of the 2014 Roland Garros final, a match-up between a five-time Grand Slam champion and current world number two. Unbelievably, it was a first-round match, and the players are fighting for just a place in the second round at Flushing Meadows. Certainly, Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep themselves know that it was a blockbuster match.
It was an unpredictable encounter considering the Russian entered the US Open having just recovered from a forearm injury which had been lingering for two months, while Halep was going into the tournament as the favorite to claim the number one ranking and it was well-known that the Romanian has troubles when it comes to dealing with pressure. This match outcome would be relatively important to both players — if Sharapova won, it would be the best win of her comeback; if Halep won, she has a clear path to number one, something which had evaded her for months.
The huge upset was complete after a marathon two-hours, 44-minutes with Sharapova defying the odds and stepping up to the occasion, relying on her reliant aggressive tennis to defeat the number two seed in three tough sets. The win was definitely important for the Russian, who rarely shows emotions on the court but yet was seen in tears after triumphing.
Sharapova prevails in tight first set
The tension was felt in the air even before the start of the match, but Sharapova came out stronger in this affair after claiming the confidence-boosting service hold in the opening game, blasting three winners in the process. If the start were to be any representation of what the match would be like — it was highly accurate. There was some high-quality tennis being played in front of the full Arthur Ashe crowd, with Halep being able to redirect the pace and get on board.
Surprisingly, it was the second seed who threatened to make the first breakthrough despite Sharapova continuing to fire on all cylinders. Despite so, her risky aggressive game brought about a couple of unforced errors, allowing Halep to earn a break point. However, the Russian fended it off with a forehand winner which landed just 2 mm inside the line, allowing her to ultimately escape from the brink. Halep would have rued her missed opportunities as Sharapova’s top-notch returns were just too powerful for the counterpuncher, who was broken in a marathon 16-point game.
It marked the start of an incredible streak of four consecutive breaks, with neither of them being able to find their groove on second serves. Unforced errors started flowing for Sharapova while Halep kept fending off the power and pressure of her opponent’s shots. The streak finally stopped in the eighth game, with Halep saving a break point to narrowly hold serve. Serving to stay in the first set, Halep couldn’t do much against Sharapova’s monstrous returns and ultimately crumbled on the Russian’s sole set point, ending the high-quality first set after 59-minutes.
Halep fights back from the brink, sends the match into a decider
After the marathon first-set, both Sharapova and Halep had an understandable sluggish start to the second set with the intensity definitely lacking. Nonetheless, the Russian rode on her momentum and continued to fire winners after winners, jumping out to a commanding 4-1 lead while Halep seemed poised for yet another first-round exit at a Grand Slam this year.
From facing a break point in the sixth game, Halep managed to mount the incredible comeback. She troubled Sharapova by lengthening the rallies and the Russian’s unforced errors started to pop up more often than usual. A shell-shocking four straight errors from Sharapova saw her immediately throw away the advantage, allowing Halep to return on serve while her defensive tactic was finally working. The five-time Grand Slam champion was generally wasteful on her opportunities, missing out on a golden opportunity to regain the lead in the eighth game.
Costly errors from Sharapova caused her to totally lose the plot, with an untimely double-fault gifting Halep with the chance to serve out the set. Though, the former world number one made her work hard for it, producing some merciless returns to earn an incredible five break points while Halep barely hung onto her lead with the help of Sharapova’s wild errors. Going for too much on the returns, the Romanian ultimately had the last laugh as she claimed her fifth consecutive game to win the second set 6-4.
Five-time Major champion completes the upset
A toilet break proved to be effective for the Russian as it allowed to regain her composure especially after losing the second set from 4-1 up. After a clean service hold to open the deciding set, Sharapova removed all possible momentum from Halep and instead turned the tables in her favor as she continued to stick to her tactics, aiming for the corners while Halep failed to deal with the power. Sharapova broke serve in the second game, and that break was ultimately the deciding factor of the match.
It was a one-sided affair for the servers through the remainder of the set, and Sharapova soon found herself serving for the biggest win of her comeback while being 5-3 up. Facing the brink of defeat, Halep stepped up her play — surprisingly outhitting Sharapova — and came out of nowhere to claim her first break point opportunity of the final set. All the pressure was weighing on Sharapova’s shoulder as she sent in a clutch second serve before Halep sent a huge forehand into the net. A backhand winner set up Sharapova’s first match point, and she finally claimed the win with Halep’s backhand sailing long.
Stats Corner: Sharapova’s aggression just too good
Both Sharapova and Halep were decent on their first serves, winning 65 and 62 percent of those points respectively. However, both players performed poorly on their second deliveries, in particularly the Romanian after she won just 15 points behind them throughout the encounter and allowing the Russian to blast 14 return winners past her.
The first set was one of the highest-quality sets of the year, with Sharapova’s aggression reflecting in the statistics as she threw in 28 winners (with 25 errors) while Halep’s defense wasn’t too bad either, having a tidy six winners and just seven errors.
In the second set, Halep rattled off five consecutive games from 1-4 down to send the match into a deciding set, and the Romanian managed to lessen her errors while peaking on the crucial points, causing Sharapova to be 1/11 on break points.
The final set saw only one break of serve, with the Russian claiming an incredible 71 percent of second serve points whereas Halep only lost one point behind her second serves. Eight return points won throughout the final set was enough for Sharapova to grab the lone break, ultimately claiming the win.
Reaction from the players: Halep disappointed while Sharapova delights
“What can I say? Much I cannot say.” Halep started her press conference looking dejected after a disappointing loss where she was outplayed by the inspired Russian. The Romanian felt that she “gave everything she had” but mentioned that Sharapova was “better” during the night.
Arguably, Halep has her luck to blame as she played decently but just met a tough opponent. “It was a tough one for first round, for sure. But still I think I played okay. She played really well. It was a good match. It was good for the fans,” speaking about their blockbuster first-round meeting. Nonetheless, the second seed was full of compliment for her opponent, claiming that her opponent performed really well while she was too lackluster on her own serves.
“When the draw came out, I knew what a difficult matchup this would be, how much excitement was behind this matchup and the hype. That all goes to the fact that we've just competed so well against each other in the past. Really produced some good tennis.” Sharapova and Halep are known for their marathon thrilling matches, with their encounters in Cincinnati and Roland Garros immediately popping up in our minds.
“The fact that I was able to come out and play that way, beat the No. 2 player in the world in the first round of the US Open, it's been a while, I think those are definitely the emotions that I was feeling,” speaking about the win, Sharapova was visibly delightful especially after shedding some tears on the court, something that we wouldn’t have expected from the Russian. Definitely, “Behind all these Swarovski crystals and little black dresses is a girl with a lot of grit, and she’s not going anywhere.”
Aftermath: Sharapova rolls into the second week, Halep rebounds from her loss
In her first Grand Slam appearance during her suspension (she was given a wildcard), Sharapova went on to reach the second week of a Major for the ninth consecutive time but fell to Anastasija Sevastova in the fourth round. The Russian entered the top-100 with this impressive run, though she was labeled as the favorite to claim the title heading towards the fortnight. Sharapova then proceeded to win her 36th WTA title in Tianjin, before ending the year as the world number 60.
Halep’s loss meant that she had a slim chance to take over the number one ranking after the tournament, with Garbine Muguruza taking the spot eventually. The Romanian endured through a three-match losing streak before finally finding her mark at the China Open, with her serve looking formidable throughout the week. It was an incredible week for Halep, who exacted revenge for her losses earlier the year, and also managed to totally outclass Sharapova 6-2, 6-2 in a rematch of this encounter. Thus, she became the 25th WTA world number one with a run to the final, ending the year at that spot.