For opening night at the U.S. Open Monday, Maria Sharapova featured a snug black dress, hot pink shoes and enough of her trademark shrieks to wake up the neighbors in Corona. It was her first tennis night out in the big city in two years — an injured shoulder kept her out of last year’s Open — and Sharapova celebrated it with a performance that was both loud and convincing, altogether her best effort in a patchy hard-court season.
The result was a 6-4, 6-0 drubbing of old friend and fellow 27-year-old Russian, Maria Kirilenko, raising Sharapova’s night record in Arthur Ashe Stadium to 17-0 — a competitive resume she could not explain.
“I’m not really sure because this is usually the time where I’m sleeping already,” Sharapova said. “I think you feel the goosebumps when you go out on a night match on Arthur Ashe.”
In the night’s late match, No. 1 Novak Djokovic began his quest to make it to a fifth straight Open final in impressive form, ousting Diego Schwartzman, a 22-year-old, 79th-ranked Argentine, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4.
Sharapova knew Kirilenko was no first-round cupcake. A good mover with a diverse arsenal of shots, Kirilenko was ranked as high as No. 10 in the world last year, falling to No. 113 because of knee problems that have limited her to seven matches this year. When Kirilenko broke after Sharapova knocked two forehands long in the fifth game of the first, then held to go up 4-2, Sharapova was not happy with the way things were unfolding.
One of Kirilenko’s two victories in 2014 came in a first-round upset over rising American star Sloane Stephens, and it seemed as if she might be ready to reprise the result against Sharapova, the 2006 Open champion, who captured the fifth Slam title of her career at the French Open in June.
Sharapova, however, did not build a career major mark of 163-39 by melting in the big moments, and here came another example of that resilience. She held for 4-3, then broke back for 4-4. At 30-30 in the pivotal ninth game, Kirilenko netted a forehand and then steered a backhand slice wide, Sharapova holding for 5-4, before the inevitable end came, Sharapova increasingly dictating play with jackhammer forehands, and closing the first set with a break on a swinging forehand volley winner.
“Overall, I was happy I was able to step it up and finish really strong,” Sharapova said.
Sharapova held for 1-0 in the second set, and then broke for 2-0 when Kirilenko netted a backhand. At 3-0, Kirilenko called to get her left ankle wrapped, and by then the night’s narrative had been cemented, and the only question would be whether Kirilenko might avoid the bagel, which she did not, mishitting a return for 5-0, and then watching helplessly as Sharapova blistered her best shot of the night for 15-40, a laser of a forehand down the line. Two missed Kirilenko serves later, the festivities were done, and Sharapova and her shrieks were done, still perfect under the lights in Arthur Ashe.
Since bowing out in the fourth round at Wimbledon, Sharapova lost in the second round of Montreal, and then in the semis in Cincinnati.
“I think if there is a time to bring the game that I want to, it’s definitely now, for the next few weeks,” Sharapova said.