NEW YORK – No one, not even Maria Sharapova herself, knew quite what to expect from her return to Grand Slam tennis at the U.S. Open.
It had been 19 months since she had entered a major tournament. She played only nine times anywhere since a 15-month doping suspension ended in April. Two three-set tussles into her stay at Flushing Meadows, it’s clear that Sharapova’s game might be patchy, but she is as capable as ever of coming up with big strokes in big moments — and maybe, just maybe, could stick around for a while in a depleted draw.
Sharapova became the first woman into the third round at the U.S. Open by using 12 aces to help set aside a poor start and coming back to beat Timea Babos of Hungary 6-7 (4-7), 6-4, 6-1 on Wednesday in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“Look, I certainly have expectations, just because I know I’ve been in these stages before and I’ve been able to execute. There’s a certain level of ‘I know I can do this. I’ve done it before. I want to have that feeling again,’ ” Sharapova said. “But there’s also the realistic understanding of, ‘OK, you haven’t been in this situation for a while. It’s going to take a little time.’ Of course, managing expectations is part of it, learning as you play the matches, which is something I haven’t done for a long time.”
Her victory was the highlight of a busy day that featured 87 singles matches on the schedule after rain washed out most play a day earlier. With so many matches going on, there were plenty of names to keep tabs on, although few truly remarkable results.
The most noteworthy second-round loss was by No. 4 Alexander Zverev, a 20-year-old German who despite his lofty seeding and considerable potential has only once been as far as the fourth round at a major. He was beaten by Borna Coric 3-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7-1), 7-6 (7-4).
Yuichi Sugita and Taro Daniel each won their first-round matches, while Nao Hibino, Risa Ozaki and Kurumi Nara all advanced to the second round in the women’s competition.
Sugita and Daniel both won for the first time at the U.S. Open, and the victories for Hibino and Ozaki were their first at a Grand Slam event.
Sugita, the world No. 44 who won the first two sets Tuesday against Geoffrey Blancaneaux before rain halted play, completed his first-round triumph the following day by sweeping the 331st-ranked Frenchman 6-2, 6-2, 6-0.
“The match got suspended and I was able to take a good rest,” Sugita said. “I’ve been playing well in North America (this summer). I’m getting a good balance between my techniques and my mental state.”
Later, Daniel, ranked 121st, won his opener in the final Grand Slam event of the season, defeating American wild card Tommy Paul 6-1, 4-6, 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 in just under three hours to book a spot in the second round against top seed Rafael Nadal.
“I wasn’t confident about winning because I hadn’t won a match lately, but I thought that something good will come my way if I didn’t give up,” said Daniel, appearing in the U.S. Open for the first time in three years.
“It’s a confidence boost to win at a big tournament like this,” said the 24-year-old, who set up a meeting with the world No. 1 player. “I didn’t think that I would be facing Nadal, so I have no idea what would happen.”
Hibino took down American Catherine Bellis 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, Ozaki beat American Danielle Lao 6-3, 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-5) in a match lasting more than three hours, and Nara swept past Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo 6-1, 6-2 to claim a win in her first match at the U.S. Open for the fifth consecutive year.
Past U.S. Open champions advancing included Venus Williams and Marin Cilic into the third round, and Juan Martin del Potro and Svetlana Kuznetsova — who saved three match points — into the second. No. 14 Nick Kyrgios, No. 22 Fabio Fognini, No. 26 Richard Gasquet and No. 27 Pablo Cuevas all lost their openers.
In the early going, it looked as if Sharapova might join them on the way out.
She made 19 unforced errors in the first set, which ended with her missing twice on forehands to give the 59th-ranked Babos the lead. But as the match went on, Sharapova looked more and more like someone who used to be ranked No. 1 and owns five major titles — including the 2006 U.S. Open — than someone who needed a wild-card invitation from the U.S. Tennis Association because she is now 146th, on account of her ban and lack of play.
“In key moments, she showed why, no matter what happened to her, why she is a big player and good player,” Babos said, “because she came up with some very, very good shots and she didn’t miss her opportunities.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5