Maria Sharapova on Wednesday made the last 32 of the US Open, insisting she has instilled renewed fear into her rivals and rekindled the love from her fans.
The former world No. 1 and five-time Grand Slam winner pulled off a 6-7 (4/7), 6-4, 6-1 win over Timea Babos of Hungary.
It was her second three-set match, having seen off world No. 2 Simona Halep on Monday in what was her first Grand Slam match since being hit with a 15-month doping ban.
“I think with the way that I played [on] Monday night, I don’t think there are any more questions,” the 30-year-old said when pushed on whether her spot in the tournament was justified.
The 2006 champion, and guaranteed arena-filler, needed a wild card to play in New York after her prolonged absence from the sport had left her with a world ranking of 146.
It was a decision widely criticized, with many insisting she should work her way back into the main draw and not be given a helping hand.
“I definitely feel the respect from the athletes,” Sharapova said. “Certainly when I play against them, in terms of the level they play. That’s important to me. I think from a respect level, when you’re able to respect your rivals and compatriots, that’s really important and I feel that.”
“I’ve also had an amazing reaction from fans since I’ve been back and that’s been very special,” she added. “I felt it while I was away. I felt it in a real presence since I’ve been back. It’s a very special feeling.”
However, the questions over the ban, imposed when she tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open last year, still keep coming.
After her win over Babos, she was asked how many times she had been drug tested this year.
“At the end of the year, the ITF [International Tennis Federation] usually produce those numbers,” Sharapova replied.
Sharapova’s return was still splitting fellow players even as her marketing appeal was evident in playing back-to-back matches on the showpiece Arthur Ashe Stadium court.
Fellow Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2004 champion, again lobbied for her compatriot.
“I’ve been always supportive to Maria. For her it has been tough. She paid for her mistake,” Kuznetsova said. “It’s great to have her back because tennis misses her. Tournament directors, people around, they love to watch her play. You can see after her first match how the crowd welcomed her back.”
However, Coco Vandeweghe said the wild card should have gone to an American.
“Wild cards are appointed by the USTA [US Tennis Association]. I can’t say I agree. I wish it was an American instead, selfishly, because it is a USA tournament,” Vandeweghe said.
Sharapova will look to reach the last 16 today when she faces Russian-born American Sofia Kenin, the world No. 139.
Win or lose, 18-year-old Kenin will be none the richer as her amateur status means she cannot claim the US$144,000 prize money at the risk of losing a place on her college squad, but she said she is still looking forward to the challenge of facing Sharapova, her childhood idol.
“I have looked up to her all my life, she’s a great player,” the teenager said. “I am really happy she’s back. I have a lot of respect for her.”
In the second round of the men’s singles, Taiwan’s Lu Yen-hsun fell to a 6-2, 7-6 (9/7), 5-7, 0-6, 7-6 (7/2) defeat to Radu Albot of Moldova in four minutes short of four hours.
Additional reporting by staff writer
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