When the men and women’s draws were finally completed, tennis aficionados quickly looked through the first round matches to pencil down potentially interesting clashes, as the final grand slam of the year gets underway. We all came upon this jewel of a match up and it has been sending shockwaves rippling through the tennis universe, ever since. Simona Halep had been drawn to play Maria Sharapova in the first round of the U.S Open.
All year long, Halep has been good enough to beat out most of the field. However, she’s come up short one too many times against a tall, rangy, lady with a game predicated on power. Does a face or perhaps a name come to mind? Maria Sharapova is every bit the kind of player that poses problems for Simona Halep.
What makes this match special is easily apparent. It is worthy of a Grand Slam final. In fact, it has been a grand slam final in the past. As recently as 2014, these two squared off for the French Open title. Sharapova was the victor that day, squeezing out a hard fought three set battle to capture her most recent grand slam title. That they are now meeting in the first round is a consequence of how much Maria Sharapova’s doping ban has derailed her once glittering career. Once a queen of tennis, Sharapova returned to the tour in April, a disgraced champion. Her comeback – hardly quiet – caused as much of a ruckus as her exit. Tournaments were quickly faced with the ‘morality’ of giving a former champion a wildcard entry. It was a tough call for most as Maria Sharapova, disgraced or not, is a still a crowd puller. The inability to get into tournaments, coupled with a recurring thigh injury and a left arm injury, have marred Sharapova’s return to competitive tennis. She comes into the U.S Open having not played a tour level match since the Stanford Classic.
If you consider Sharapova’s struggles, and Halep’s solid season long performances, this match should – at least on paper – be straightforward. A victory for Simona Halep. However, no one knows the danger of facing a fallen five-time grand slam champion in the first round, more than the Romanian. She rightly pointed out in her press conference that she is yet to bag a win over Sharapova in six tries, while quickly adding that she hoped to turn it around on Monday. As far as first round draws go, this is as tough as it gets. Maria Sharapova might be ranked 146 in the world, but she is still… well… Maria Sharapova. There’s no getting around that for Halep.
We’ve talked about Maria’s struggles, but the picture – and the irony of it – would not be complete if we do not mention Simona Halep’s struggles as well. She comes into the U.S Open smarting over her most recent loss. A finals deconstruction by Garbine Muguruza. All year long, Halep has been good enough to beat out most of the field. However, she’s come up short one too many times against a tall, rangy lady with a game predicated on power. Does a face or perhaps a name come to mind? Maria Sharapova is every bit the kind of player that poses problems for Simona Halep. There is the real danger of the Romanian star becoming the first seed to be ushered out of the U.S Open. If Sharapova finds her game, she could blow Halep off the court. What’s worse is Sharapova’s heart is legendary for being as big as her game is. She will fight all the elements that may square off against her – Halep, rust, and even the New York crowd if need be. So even if she’s off her game, she could still will herself to a victory. That’s what Simona Halep is up against.
Of course, there is a potential upside to this. Should Simona Halep find a way to absorb Sharapova’s power and win, she’ll move forward having gotten some good practice against the very type of player that has been her Achilles heel, and quite honestly kept her slamless till date. That experience could come in during the later parts of the tournament where the likes of Muguruza and Venus Williams could be waiting.
Either way, this promises to be a fire cracker of a match. Despite the lopsided head to head, I do give the edge to Simona Halep. She is a dogged grinder who is capable of punching well above her weight class when it matters, and this is as vulnerable as she will most likely ever get Sharapova. The Russian can whale on the ball like the best of them, but few on the women’s tour are as good as Halep in getting them back.
Advantage, The Grinder.