TRAILING BIG IN the first round of the US Open, Maria Sharapova thought — well, no, she was certain — that she’d pull through if she could push her inexperienced opponent to a third set.
And Sharapova was right.
Shrieking as loudly as ever, Sharapova came back from a set and a break down against 19-year-old Heather Watson of Britain to win 3-6 7-5 6-3 last night, improving to 12-0 this year in matches that went the distance.
“It’s just a matter of belief within myself, that no matter how well or bad or good I’m playing, or my opponent is playing, I know I can tough it out,” the number three seed said after her 2½-hour victory.
No matter what the situation is, I have the belief.
Sharapova won six Grand Slam matches at Wimbledon alone this summer, reaching the final there before losing to 21-year-old Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic.
Fresh off that triumph, Kvitova — seeded fifth in Flushing Meadows — failed to follow it up, flopping yesterday with a 7-6 6-3 loss to 48th-ranked Alexandra Dulgheru of Romania.
Kvitova is the first reigning Wimbledon women’s champion to lose her first match at the US Open in the same season. Only three times had the Wimbledon winner bowed out as early as the third round in New York: Sharapova in 2004, Conchita Martinez in 1994, and Billie Jean King in 1973.
“This is something new for me,” Kvitova said about her new status as Grand Slam champion. “I’ve felt a little pressure.”
She was the only seeded woman to exit on day one of the year’s last major tournament, joined on the way out by number 15 Viktor Troicki of Serbia, a 3-6 6-3 4-6 7-5 7-5 loser against Alejandro Falla of Colombia.
At night, 2000-01 US Open champion Venus Williams played her first match in two months and beat 91st-ranked Vesna Dolonts of Russia 6-4 6-3.
Williams hit six aces and 28 total winners against the weary Dolonts, who left Moscow at 4am and arrived at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center at 4pm, after having flights canceled Saturday and Sunday because of Tropical Storm Irene.
“It’s always nerve-racking to play the first match after a layoff in a major. It’s not really my first choice at all,” said Williams, who pulled out of recent tuneup tournaments because of a virus.
But I just tried to rely on experience and, I don’t know, just tried to get after it. So I was pleased with the level.
In the day’s last match, 16-time major winner Roger Federer beat 54th-ranked Santiago Giraldo of Colombia 6-4 6-3 6-2 to collect his 224th victory in Grand Slam play, tying Andre Agassi for second-most in the Open era.
“It doesn’t need to be pretty. I don’t think I’ve ever played my very, very best in the first round. It’s always nice to be winning matches,” said Federer, who now trails only Jimmy Connors’ career total of 233.
Other winners included Gael Monfils; Mardy Fish, who played his first U.S. Open match as the top-seeded American and beat Tobias Kamke 6-2 6-2 6-1; Tomas Berdych, the 2010 Wimbledon runner-up; Richard Gasquet; Alexandr Dolgopolov; and Marin Cilic, who eliminated 19-year-old American Ryan Harrison 6-2 7-5 7-6.
Advancing along with Sharapova to the second round were Vera Zvonareva, a finalist last year at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open; 16-year-old Madison Keys of Boca Raton, Fla. — the youngest and, at 455th, lowest-ranked woman in the draw — who beat 37-year-old Jill Craybas 6-2 6-4; and Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, who beat her younger sister Urszula Radwanska 6-2 6-3.
– Howard Fendrich