After missing last year’s U.S. Open with a shoulder injury, former champion Maria Sharapova returned to Flushing Meadows with an impressive 6-3, 6-0 victory over Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria on Tuesday.
Several hours after her Russian compatriot Dinara Safina went perilously close to becoming the first No. 1-seeded woman to lose in the first round of the Open, 2006 champion Sharapova gave a much stronger performance.
The three-time Grand Slam winner produced 29 winners - 23 more than her 98th-ranked opponent.
Sharapova showed no signs of the shoulder tear that forced her to have surgery in October and kept her 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 the tennis skills and grit that once took her to No. 1 in the rankings, Sharapova always has placed an emphasis on fashion. On this night, her black dress carried bold, metallic accents, paired with a matching, ‘60s-style silver headband to create an outfit she described as a tribute to New York’s skyline.
Former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, seeded 11th, was bundled out in the first round by 52nd-ranked Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7).
The Serbian player had the worst showing ever by a top-seeded woman in New York last year when she exited in the second round. Ivanovic went one worse this time.
“It hurts. I can tell you that,” Ivanovic said. “I’m sure I will have sleepless nights.”
At least the 2008 French Open champion had a big support group in the stands, cheering for her wildly. Safina, by contrast, would look up at her coach for positive body language, and instead, he’d cover his eyes with his hands or turn his head with a wince.
“Well,” Safina would say later, “I guess I had to think: ‘What I’m doing wrong?”’
There’s been some debate this season about whether Safina deserves the top ranking, one spot ahead of Serena Williams. The Russian did not bolster her case on Tuesday.
Nearly undone by 11 double-faults and 48 total unforced errors, Safina was a point away from a 4-0 deficit in the third set before coming back to beat Olivia Rogowska of Australia 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4.
Safina is used to faring well in the early stages of Grand Slam tournaments. Usually, it’s later on that problems arise: She is winless in three major finals, all lopsided losses, and she managed to win only one game against Venus Williams in the Wimbledon semifinals in July.
“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.”
In other upset results: 276th-ranked Jesse Witten of the United States downed No. 29-seeded Igor Andreev 6-4, 6-0, 6-2 on the men’s side; 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 of Russia, past runners-up Elena Dementieva of Russia and Serbian Jelena Jankovic, No. 9 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark and Russian No. 13 Nadia Petrova.
Men’s winners included second-seeded Andy Murray of Scotland, 2008 Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic of Serbia and that tournament’s runner-up, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France, along with Spanish No. 10 Fernando Verdasco, No. 11 Fernando Gonzalez of Chile, No. 16 Marin Cilic of Croatia, Czech No. 17 Tomas Berdych and No. 22 Sam Querrey of the United States.
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.”
The mental fragility Safina has acknowledged is an issue for her on court was a factor in her play on Tuesday, but at least she managed to keep it in check.
“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.”