NEW YORK – Maria Sharapova was right where she likes to be: on the Grand Slam stage and in the spotlight.
After missing last year’s U.S. Open with a shoulder injury, the 2006 champion returned to the tournament Tuesday night with an impressive 6-3, 6-0 victory over Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria.
Sharapova’s game was as glittery as her black-and-silver dress and matching headwrap, an outfit she described as a tribute to New York’s skyline.
Several hours after Dinara Safina came perilously close to becoming the first No. 1-seeded woman to lose in this major tournament’s first round, Sharapova gave a much stronger performance.
The three-time Grand Slam title winner produced 29 winners – a whopping 23 more than her 98th-ranked opponent. And Sharapova’s game was particularly clean in the second set, when she hit 16 winners and only five unforced errors.
Apart from four double-faults, Sharapova showed no signs of the shoulder tear that forced her to have surgery in October and kept off the tour for nearly 10 months.
“This is a Grand Slam. You’ve got to get going from the first match,” Sharapova said. “After being gone, this is what it’s all about.”
In addition to tennis skills and grit that once placed her No. 1 in the rankings, Sharapova always has placed an emphasis on fashion. On this night, her black dress carried bold, metallic accents that would gain her entry into even the trendiest of New York clubs. She paired it with a matching, ’60s-style silver headband.
As often happens with Sharapova, the post-match, on-court interview dealt as much with her getup as her game. “It’s always 50-50: You never know when people are going to like it or not,” Sharapova told the crowd.
Safina’s coach certainly did not appear to like what he saw.
Sitting in the stands at the U.S. Open, he’d cover his eyes with his hands or turn his head with a wince as Safina’s 11 double-faults and all manner of other mistakes mounted – or put another way, as she looked less and less like a woman who is ranked No. 1.
There’s been some debate this season about whether Safina deserves that standing, one spot ahead of Serena Williams. The Russian did not bolster her case Tuesday.
Nearly undone by her own poor play, Safina was a point away from a 4-0 deficit in the third set before coming back to beat 167th-ranked Olivia Rogowska of Australia 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Dubois of Laval, Que., posted the first Grand Slam win of her career, defeating French teen Kristina Mladenovic 6-0, 6-4.
In men’s doubles, Toronto’s Daniel Nestor and Serbian partner Nenad Zimonjic defeated Germans Andreas Beck and Simon Greul 6-3, 7-5.
Safina, younger sister of 2000 U.S. Open champion Marat Safin, is used to faring well in the early stages of Grand Slam tournaments. Usually, it’s later on that problems arise: She is 0-3 in major finals, all lopsided losses, and she managed to win only one game against Venus Williams in the Wimbledon semifinals in July.
On Tuesday, Safina repeatedly glanced up at her coach, Zeljko Krajan, perhaps hoping for positive reinforcement. Instead, she rarely found anything but negative body language.
“Well,” Safina would say later, “I guess I had to think: ‘What I’m doing wrong?”‘
The answer: plenty. And she didn’t merely miss, 48 unforced errors in all. She missed rather badly. Embarrassingly, even.
“I was surprised that, you know, she was giving me free points,” said Rogowska, an 18-year-old who never has defeated anyone ranked better than 47th.
As Rogowska spoke, her eyes were red, and she fiddled with a well-worn tissue.
“I’m disappointed I lost,” she said, “and I didn’t expect to say that after playing the No. 1 player in the world. It’s a bit weird.”
The day did feature the occasional upset: 276th-ranked Jesse Witten of Naples, Fla., knocked off No. 29-seeded Igor Andreev of Russia 6-4, 6-0, 6-2; Yanina Wickmayer of Belgium defeated No. 16 Virginie Razzano of France 6-4, 6-3; and Shahar Peer of Israel eliminated No. 32 Agnes Szavay of Hungary 6-2, 6-2.
Otherwise, winners included 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, past runners-up Elena Dementieva and Jelena Jankovic, No. 9 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 13 Nadia Petrova.
Men’s winners included 2008 Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic and that tournament’s runner-up, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, along with No. 10 Fernando Verdasco, No. 11 Fernando Gonzalez, No. 16 Marin Cilic, No. 17 Tomas Berdych and No. 22 Sam Querrey.
Neither Safina nor Rogowska played particularly well. They combined for 24 double-faults, 113 unforced errors and 15 service breaks over 2 1/2 hours.
“I put a lot of pressure on her serve,” Rogowska said, “and it seemed to crumble a bit.”
Afterward, Safina found two things to be happy about: She didn’t break any rackets – something big brother Marat is known for – and she didn’t receive any warnings from the chair umpire. So, yes, the mental fragility she’s acknowledged is an issue for her on court was a factor in her play, but at least Safina managed to keep it in check.
Oh, and then there was this: “Tomorrow is another day,” she said. “So hopefully from today on, it’s going to get better.”
Couldn’t get much worse.
“It happens that you have a bad day and you want to … say, ‘I hate everything,”‘ Safina said. “But at the end of the day, you win the match, even like this – I would say a little bit ugly. But you come in the hotel, and you are like, ‘I made it.’ Like, at the end of the day, that counts. I made it. I pulled it out, and that’s what counts for me.”
Rogowska, too, tried to find the positive in her day. A year ago, after all, she was back home in Melbourne, watching the U.S. Open on television. On Tuesday, she was playing in the tournament and nearly winning – against the woman who is ranked No. 1, no less.
“My heart was just going crazy, and I was breathing, like, really fast,” Rogowska said. “So next time, I guess, I’m just going to have to learn to stay calm, and, you know, not get too excited.”
Sounds like good advice for Safina.