Paris: Two-time champion Maria Sharapova said she “loves the challenge” of playing Grand Slam tennis, after surviving a serious scare to claim a 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 victory over Dutch qualifier Richel Hogenkamp in her first French Open match since 2015 on Tuesday.
The Russian was refused a wildcard by organisers for the tournament last year, which took place shortly after her return from a 15-month doping suspension.
Sharapova, the 28th seed, will face Croatia’s Donna Vekic in the second round.
She was staring down the barrel of falling at the first hurdle in a Grand Slam tournament for the first time since the 2010 Australian Open when trailing 3-0 in the deciding set, but the former world number one dug deep and reeled off six straight games to edge into round two.
“I love the challenge of being in a Grand Slam draw and figuring out a way to win,” Sharapova said after a match that was pushed back from Monday due to thunderstorms.
“I mean, throughout two weeks, you play against different opponents and different circumstances with weather, with a lot of waiting around like we did, you know, to sunshine.
“So there is a lot of ups and downs, a lot of different feelings, different matchups. You’ve just got to find a way how to handle your emotions and how you handle the matches physically.
“I thrive on that. I enjoy that challenge, trying to see how I can bring that out of me.”
The five-time Grand Slam winner is only seeded at Roland Garros courtesy of a semi-final run in Rome earlier this month which dragged her back into the top 30 for the first time since her ban.
The 31-year-old took just 24 minutes to win the first set, but threw away a 3-1 lead in the second as world number 133 Hogenkamp forced a decider.
“I feel like I got very impatient in the second set for not many reasons,” Sharapova added.
“She was becoming a little bit more consistent, and I think I lost a little bit of pace on my ball, but I finished out six straight games. I think if there is any way to turn that match around, it’s that way.”
Sharapova, champion in Paris in 2012 and 2014, could face a heavyweight showdown with Serena Williams in the last 16 should the pair both get that far.
Williams won her first Grand Slam match since the 2017 Australian Open after giving birth to her daughter, and beat Kristyna Pliskova on Court Philippe Chatrier while wearing a striking black catsuit.
“I did get a little glimpse, but I haven’t seen too much of the match, but I think that’s expected first Grand Slam back. Nike does a really good job of making statements,” said Sharapova, who like Williams is sponsored by the clothing giants.
“The great thing about tennis is that you can, like, express your individuality and be different. Yeah, I love that about it.”