The highlight of this year’s US Open draw is an absolute blockbuster first round match between the number two seed, Simona Halep and the 2006 champion, Maria Sharapova. The bottom half of the women’s draw will start on Monday with the pair unsurprisingly being scheduled for the first night match on Arthur Ashe stadium. Can’t wait for this one!
Currently ranked at number two in the Race to Singapore, Halep has enjoyed another superb season on the WTA tour. The highlights of Halep’s 2017 have included a second Slam final at Roland Garros, a 15th title in Madrid and final appearances in both Rome and Cincy. After another injury-riddled start to the year, Halep settled down in Miami and has since, been one of the most consistent players on tour and reached at least the quarter-finals at her last ten tournaments.
While it’s been another great season for Halep, it has been defined by a series of tough losses. The world number two was up a set and a break in the French Open final but eventually lost out to a peaking, Jelena Ostapenko, 6-4 4-6 3-6. Halep spoke in press in Eastbourne that her only regret was not going for her returns when leading 6-4 3-0 and with break points. A quarter-final loss to Johanna Konta at Wimbledon, 7-6(2) 6-7(5) 4-6, while one of her best performances on grass, was another lost opportunity being just two points away from the win. In recent weeks, Halep has suffered one-sided losses at the hands of Elina Svitolina (1-6 1-6) and Garbiñe Muguruza (1-6 0-6) in Toronto and Cincinnati respectively. As a player who drives on confidence and belief, the impact of these losses may have been significant.
Sharapova’s return to the tour since her drugs ban has been thwarted by injury. The Russian player was forced to retire during her second round match in Rome against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni with a left thigh injury, which also forced her out of qualifying for Wimbledon. In her return on hard courts, Sharapova played just one match at the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford and pulled out of the tournament before her second round match against Lesia Tsurenko due to a left forearm injury. This subsequently resulted in her withdrawals from Toronto and Cincinnati.
In her only match from Stanford, Sharapova beat Jennifer Brady, 6-1 4-6 6-0. While it wasn’t Sharapova’s best performance on her return, her form has generally been decent in 2017 and she has served really well at times. In her first tournament back, the Russian player reached the semi-finals of Stuttgart and then came up just short in a magnificent second round match in Madrid against an inspired, Eugenie Bouchard.
The injuries though are a concern and were an issue even before the drugs ban – in 2015, Sharapova missed three months between June and September, including the US Open, due to a leg injury and then didn’t play again until Wuhan where she retired hurt from her first match against Barbora Strycova with a left forearm injury. Sharapova played some stunning tennis at the end of 2015 at the WTA Finals and in the Fed Cup final. At the start of 2016, Sharapova withdrew from Brisbane due to the left forearm injury.
Head-to-head record: Sharapova has won all six previous matches against Halep with their most recent match taking place at the 2015 WTA Finals in Singapore – Sharapova won, 6-4 6-4. Their three prior matches before the Singapore clash all went the distance with the highlight being the fantastic French Open final from 2014 where Sharapova prevailed, 6-4 6-7(5) 6-4.
Interesting stats: Sharapova has won nine of her last 13 matches against top ten players. For Halep, her last nine matches on tour through Toronto and Cincy were all decided in straight sets.
Final thoughts: There is no doubt from their previous encounters that Sharapova has the upper hand over Halep. I remember that Halep was generally regarded as the favourite in their most recent match on the slow hard courts of Singapore in 2015 with Sharapova coming in cold following several months out from injury. Sharapova dictated and dominated to win reasonably comfortably in straight sets.
Halep is a huge confidence player and trying to beat Sharapova for the first time in her career, no matter where Sharapova’s level is at, is going to require a huge mental effort. Halep has made big strides this year in becoming more positive in her attitude on court yet still, with everything in life, it is a work in progress. There have been instances where she gets really down on herself and in the Cincy final against Muguruza, she couldn’t get out of the downward spiral and was unable to turn the match around.
Critical to this match-up is going to be Sharapova’s health and fitness, and whether she’s up for the clash physically. The consistent spate of injuries, particularly with the forearm, do cast some doubts on her participation. Coming in ‘cold’ since Stanford gives Halep an immediate advantage. However, if Sharapova is healthy, and ready to go all in physically then I tend to think her mentality will continue to prevail in this head-to-head.
I’m fascinated to see how this match unfolds and it will be a great spectacle to open the women’s tournament. In a pretty light section of the draw, the winner of this match will have a dreamy draw to reach the quarter-finals of the 2017 US Open.