- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 2, 2009

NEW YORK | Maria Sharapova simply couldn’t bear the thought of a U.S. Open taking place without her. So while sidelined with a torn shoulder a year ago, she refused to follow the tournament on TV.

Basically pretended it wasn’t even happening.

On Tuesday night, Sharapova was right where she likes to be: on the Grand Slam stage and in the spotlight. The 2006 U.S. Open champion returned to the tournament with an impressive 6-3, 6-0 victory over Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria.

“I was in the physical therapy office every single day, and the tennis was on. But I made a point not to watch it,” Sharapova said. “When you’re not participating in a tournament that you very much love and you’ve had success at as an athlete and as a competitor, to not be there and not be competing is pretty tough.”

Against her 98th-ranked opponent, Sharapova’s game was as glittery as her black-and-silver dress and matching headwrap, an outfit she described as a tribute to New York’s skyline. The three-time Grand Slam title winner produced 29 winners - 23 more than Pironkova. And Sharapova’s game was particularly clean in the second set, when she hit 16 winners and only five unforced errors.

Apart from four double faults, Sharapova showed no signs of the shoulder injury 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.”

Tell that to Ana Ivanovic. Or Dinara Safina.

Earlier, Safina came perilously close to becoming the first top-seeded woman to lose in the U.S. Open’s first round. But she eked out a victory over an 18-year-old from Australia who is ranked 167th and needed a wild-card invitation to get into the tournament.

The worst showing ever by a top-seeded woman in New York came last year, when Ivanovic exited in the second round. Now seeded 11th, Ivanovic did herself one worse this time, losing in the first round to 52nd-ranked Kateryna Bondarenko 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7).

At least the 2008 French Open champion had a big support group in the stands, cheering wildly. Safina, in contrast, would look up at her coach for positive body language, and instead he would cover his eyes with his hands or turn his head with a wince.

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 0-3 in 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, who never has defeated anyone ranked higher than 47th.

Ivanovic was not the only seeded player who was upset: No. 19 Stanislas Wawrinka, No. 27 Ivo Karlovic and No. 29 Igor Andreev were bounced from the men’s draw. Other seeded women to lose were No. 16 Virginie Razzano and No. 32 Agnes Szavay.

Otherwise, winners included 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, past runners-up Elena Dementieva and Jelena Jankovic, No. 9 Caroline Wozniacki and No. 13 Nadia Petrova.

Men’s winners included No. 2-seeded Andy Murray, last year’s U.S. Open runner-up, who beat Ernests Gulbis of Latvia 7-5, 6-3, 7-5, 2008 Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic and that tournament’s runner-up, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Also advancing were No. 10 Fernando Verdasco, No. 11 Fernando Gonzalez, No. 16 Marin Cilic, No. 17 Tomas Berdych, No. 22 Sam Querrey of Thousand Oaks, Calif., and Taylor Dent of Newport Beach, Calif.

Dent, playing in the U.S. Open for the first time since 2005, eliminated Feliciano Lopez of Spain 4-6, 7-6 (6), 6-3, 7-5.

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