It wasn't pretty. It wasn't clean. But Maria Sharapova is back in tennis.
After accepting a controversial wild-card nod from the United States Tennis Association, Sharapova defeated No. 2 seed Simona Halep 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. It was Sharapova's first grand slam match in 19 months, and it showed. She made her share of errors, but she ultimately came out on top after two hours and 45 minutes.
Sharapova was suspended for 15 months in 2016 after testing positive for a banned substance. She was reinstated in April.
Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam champion with all four major titles to her credit, had received nine wild-card nods leading up to the Open, but this was her return to Grand Slam play. She improved to 11-0 in the first round of the US Open. She was reduced to tears after the match as the crowd applauded her, and from the way that she celebrated it was impossible to tell that it was only the first round.
The crowd went back and forth like -- well -- a tennis match. They couldn't seem to decide who to cheer louder for, and the excitement from the crowd of over 23,000 emanated with every serve. No matter who won the volley, the crowd cheered in excitement, and it seemed to dawn on them around the eighth game in the second set that they were watching a truly special performance, let alone in the first round.
After the match, Sharapova had nothing but praise for her opponent. "This girl has a lot of grit and she's not going anywhere," she said on the court after the match. "I just thought that was another day, another opportunity, another match," she added. "But this was so much more. I tried not to think about it."
Halep played well herself, but ultimately Sharapova's power proved too much for the budding star. Despite a multitude of errors, Sharapova was able to keep her composure. Although it looked like she might have lost her edge in the final four games of the second set, she came back in the third and won decisively. She jumped out to a 3-0 lead that soon swelled to 5-2, and despite a concerted eighth game from Halep to make it 5-3, the lead was just too much. Even though Sharapova's sometimes sloppy play carried over to the final set, her mistakes were fewer and farther between.
When it was all said and done, Sharapova had 60 winners, 45 more than Halep finished the match with. She also finished with 64 unforced errors -- including 52 in the first two sets -- to Halep's 14.
It was a rusty performance, no doubt, but Sharapova survived against one of the best players in the world. She had trouble closing, but with the match point on the line she got the job done. When the final shot sailed long, Sharapova instantly dropped to her knees, the weight of her first match back seemingly dissipating with the crowd's excitement. As for Halep, she might go home disappointed, but circumstances could allow her to still hold the No. 1 ranking when the Open is said and done.
Sharapova's road won't get any easier, but after an emotional win such as this one, she'll be able to take a well-earned rest before she heads into the second round. With all of the controversy surrounding her, her winning volley was the first time that it truly felt her suspension was over.