It was lights, camera, action on the opening night of the US Open and Maria Sharapova responded in electrifying fashion.
The now world No 146, returning to Grand Slam action for the first time since last year’s Australian Open, defeated second seed Simona Halep 6-4 4-6 6-3 in a pulsating encounter that lasted a shade under two and three quarter hours.
Whatever the deeply questionable message sent by giving someone a wildcard on their way back from a doping suspension, there could no arguing that this was superb sporting theatre.
Maria Sharapova saw off Simona Halep on her dramatic return to Grand Slam action
Sharapova won 6-4 4-6 6-3 in front of a sell-out night session crowd of almost 24,000 people
Sharapova created a remarkable 22 break points, many of them with 28 forehand winners
The Russian was visibly overwhelmed by the reaction of the crowd to her victory over Halep
Sharapova, who had completed only one match since the middle of May, came out and hurled the kitchen sink at Halep, one of the best counter punchers in the game.
Although her nerve badly failed her when leading 4-1 in the second set – doubtless a consequence of so little recent matchplay – the 30 year-old Russian made no mistake when she got ahead early in the decider with a break for 2-1.
The capacity crowd of 23,700 was broadly supportive of a player who in April returned from a 15-month ban for taking Meldonium.
But then the quality of the match had quickly proved remarkable for a first round. Sharapova hit 60 winners, made 64 unforced errors in her all-out aggression and would have won far more easily if she had converted more than five out of 22 break points.
Halep battled back to win the second set but she was eventually overpowered by Sharapova
harapova overpowered world No2 Simon Halep for the seventh time in a row
Sharapova goes on to face Hungary’s Timea Babos, the world No 59, in round two
Wearing a dramatic black dress featuring lace and sequins, the Russian matched it with astonishing shotmaking reminiscent of her heyday.
You would never have thought this was someone who has recently been out with leg and forearm problems, causing her to turn down the copious wildcards that tournaments (except the French Open) have queued up to offer.
‘I just thought this was another day, another match, but this was so much more,’ gushed an unsusually emotional Sharapova, now having a day off before meeting Hungary’s Timea Babos.
‘I knew it was going to be physical against Simona and I was mentally prepared for that. I want to enjoy this and then set my mind to the next one.’
At times her 6-0 record over Halep seemed to weigh heavily on the Romanian, who has buckled under pressure before this summer.
But her biggest problem was coping with the power and depth generated by Sharapova. There was also a big difference in their serves, an area the Russian looks to have improved in her enforced time away.
Sharapove was given a warm reception both before and after she had stepped on the court
Halep was beaten in the French Open final in June and lost in the Wimbledon quarter-finals
The Flushing Meadows crowd was packed to witness Sharapova’s return to Grand Slam action
Halep seemed to have exerted control after coming back in the second set, but an overlong toilet break taken by the Russian helped stop the momentum change.
A question will be how she manages to recover between matches, although the luxury of a day off at Majors will help.
Halep did not appear happy about the length of Sharapova’s toilet break: ‘I’m used to it, she does that all the time, it’s her style and I don’t comment,’ she said.
‘I’m sad losing the match. My serve was bad today, she was serving better. It was tough, not like a first round. She was playing very well.’