US OPEN: Tennis Finally Figures Out How to Solve a Problem Like Maria

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The legendary Mark Twain traveled the world. Long before amps and electric guitars, he rocked crowds with rollicking quips and quotes. One of his simplest points was, “The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

And this year’s US Open was kick-started by another Twain ­– a Canadian, Ms. Shania Twain, who has plenty of amps and popularity. She delighted the Open’s opening night crowd with her hit, “The Woman in Me,” just before two of the best women in tennis took to Ashe Stadium.


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If you like hype and hoopla, and if an edgy sense of anticipation turns you on – the first day of the Open is your thing, baby.

Simply put, the most frenzied day of the most frenzied event in tennis is tranquility-averse – monks and nuns need not apply.

Here, the sky above is alight with fireworks. The press room is overwhelmed – the chatter loud. Everywhere there are celebs, including boxers (Mike Tyson) and broadcasters (Katie Couric) and “basketballers” (Caroline Wozniacki’s beau David Lee). Fanatics bend low to gain a peek at Venus in her long pink practice warm-ups, or cool Federer unleashing gorgeous backhands. Fans take in many a new wrinkle, temporary stadiums and, most of all, big young athletes hitting the bejesus out of yellow spheres – guts, grunts and grit.

All the while, the world of tennis knows one thing: change is gonna come. This game has never been so fluid.

After years of life in the “Serena-sphere,” during which the considerable Williams claimed her second Serena Slam in 2014-15, the women’s game is now wider than than the Grand Canyon. As play began, eight players had a shot to finish No. 1 after the dust of the US Open settles. Karolina Pliskova, one of the great under-the-radar No. 1’s in tennis history, remains atop the rankings, ahead of No. 2 Simona Halep by a slim, five-point margin. And Garbine Muguruza, Elina Svitolina, Caroline Wozniacki, Johanna Konta, Svetlana Kuznetsova and even the venerable Venus Williams had a shot to get to the top.

All the while, Serena is nearing the end of her pregnancy, and Victoria Azarenka has been forced by a court order to stay with her young son in California. No wonder officials felt pressure to get star Maria on court. And once there, on the big stage, five-time Slam winner Sharapova thrived. With a black dress, black shoes, black visor and many a glittering sequin, she sparkled. Playing with a fierce intensity and relentless intent, her famous groundies pinned the world No. 2 Halep.

Sharapova’s serve at times wavered. More often it was a considerable weapon. When Maria pounded a modest, 71 mph Halep second serve, she captured the fiercely fought first set, 6-4. In the second, Sharapova’s loud lasers continued to subdue perhaps the best defensive player in the women’s game. Up 4-1, she appeared to be in cruise control until Halep adeptly counterattacked. Her consistency began to take the edge off the rusty Russian and she pulled even to 4-4. As Sharapova failed to hold or capitalize on break points, the momentum switched decisively. The steady Romanian, sporting Pharrell Williams’ color-bar Adidas gear, capped a streak of five games by claiming the second set, 6-4.

But at the start of the third, Sharapova, playing just her 10th match in 19 months, stormed back into control. She quickly claimed the first three games with some fierce hitting – and surprising touch at the net. Halep began to hold again, but Maria’s serve grew stronger as she blazed an ace to go up 5-2 and then forced a Halep error to capture the match 6-4, 4-6, 6-3. She’d blasted 60 winners. She claimed an 18-0 night match record on Ashe Stadium, and now holds a 7-0 record over the Romanian.

And then we saw a truly amazing sight. The game’s great control artist let all semblance of control go. She fell to her knees. She grasped her mouth. Her eyes moistened. Tears flowed like a thawing spring river in the Ural mountains. Never before – not after winning Wimbledon over Serena as a teen, or prevailing at the French Open, where she described herself as “a cow on ice,” – had we seen this from the supposedly icy, ferocious power lady.

She was reared in Siberia and then was uprooted and sent to Florida. She went on to become a friend of Putin and a foe of many on tour. Her parents had survived the Chernobyl implosion. Now we saw an emotional explosion from her like never before.

Here was an inexplicable sight that her loving fans, her sometimes bitter enemies, and hardened observers thought they would never see – flowing, open, raw and real emotion from the Russian.

“We all judged her,” said Chris Evert. “But she’s huge. We need her.”

Yes, exactly! Especially since this tournament has no Nole, and no Stanimal. Murray is mute, Milos is missing, Kei is not okay and Serena is with child.

And tonight, it seemed that all of tennis was with a suddenly open and vulnerable athlete. After 14 years of grinding on an often brutal tour, Sharapova at last seemed real and appealing.

At last, tennis had figured out how to solve a problem like Maria.

TENNYS WAS DEAD, THEN IT RALLIED: When the curiously named Tennys Sandgren was struggling against Wimbledon finalist Marin Cilic, a wise guy in the press room referenced the infamous 1994 Sports Illustrated cover and sarcastically asked, “Is Tennys dead?” Then when the Tennessean, who was named after his great grandfather, mounted a third-set surge, someone said, “Tennys is rallying.” Eventually Sandgren lost to the Croatian in four sets.

TOUGH TIMES FOR BRITS: First Andy Murray pulled out of the Open due to a bad hip. Then British sweetheart Heather Watson lost to France’s Alize Cornet in straights, after which No. 7 seed Jo Konta, who was vying for a No. 1 ranking, fell to Serbian off-pace artist Aleksandra Krunic. But there was at least one piece of good news for the English – Kyle Edmunds won.

DAY BY DAY: A winner today in straights over Nicolas Almagro, Steve Johnson is still coping with the loss of his father earlier this year. “Some days…you can process it all and take it in stride. Some days the littlest things will set you off,” said the 27-year-old from SoCal, currently ranked No. 46. “I’m just taking it day by day…Don’t let…the lows take you. Because those thoughts come and…I’m guessing it will get easier.”

ASHE ON ASHE – JEANNE REMEMBERS: Arthur Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe, told the opening night crowd, “I know how proud Arthur was to have won the first US Open in 1968.” She added, “Education, civil rights and human rights meant everything to him then, and they are still are so important.”

LIU IN A SPICY STEW: So please indulge us on this, the first day of a Grand Slam, as we impose on you this not-so-grand ditty.

Wordplay savants were crestfallen that young Amercian Claire Liu was not playing on Louis Armstrong, which is now being rebuilt. If she were, Liu would have been in a stadium that is affectionately called “the Lou,” where, if an English ump were in the chair, she would inform the crowd during a bathroom break that “Liu is going to the loo.” If Wimbledon girls champion Liu had won today, her backers would have cheered “Hal-e-Liu-yah!” and her financial types would soon be counting her “loot.”

But the forehands of Liu – they flew. Her mind, it was like a stew. She fell in a funk, quite blue. Alas, she’d met her waterloo. Her hard-hitting foe sighed “whew.” As for winner Ying-Ying, we have nothing to say. After all, dear reader, it’s not our thing-thing.

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