NEW YORK, September 2 – Maria Sharapova made a triumphant return to the US Open, moving closer to an early showdown with Elena Dementieva, while world number one Dinara Safina struggled into the second round on Tuesday.Sharapova, the 2006 US Open winner, missed last year’s Flushing Meadows fortnight with a right shoulder injury but the Russian beauty was welcomed back with huge cheers in a 6-3, 6-0 win over Bulgaria’s Tsvetana Pironkova.
"It’s amazing," she said. "Being out almost a whole year, it’s all worth it when you step on the court, you hear all the cheering and feel the atmosphere. You forget what you are doing it all for but when you feel this you remember."
Safina barely escaped becoming the first US Open women’s top seed to lose in the first round, battling back from a break and two break-points down in the third set to edge Australian teen Olivia Rogowska 6-7 (5/7), 6-2, 6-4.
"God knows how I pulled it out," Safina said. "Worse it cannot be. From now on it can only get better."
Fourth seed Dementieva, who could meet Sharapova in the third round as she bids for her first Slam crown, beat French qualifier Camille Pin 6-1, 6-2 to reach a second-round match with American teenager Melanie Oudin.
"It was a good start," Dementieva said. "I was pretty aggressive. I was glad I was able to stay all the way and not lose my concentration."
French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova also won to complete the sweep of opening matches by Russian seeds while Serbian fifth seed Jelena Jankovic, last year’s US Open runner-up, beat Italy’s Roberta Vinci 6-2, 6-3 in her opener.
But the star was former world number one Sharapova, booking a second-round date with US wild card Christina McHale in only 73 minutes.
"I had a little bit of a slow start but once I got going I did a good job of maintaining," Sharapova said. "It was just about adjusting as fast as I could. I was able to get into the groove of it and get it done in two."
Together with Belgian Kim Clijsters, who took a two-year break to start a family, the draw has a pair of former US Open champions and world number ones making compelling comebacks.
"Comebacks are great for the sport," Sharapova said. "We’re both still very young. It creates excitement and buzz, considering we’re contenders. We’ve won Grand Slams. We’re big competitors. We love the big stage."
Safina, who next faces Germany’s 67th-ranked Kristina Barrois, took two hours and 35 minutes to dispatch 167th-ranked wildcard Rogowska, who would have been the second-lowest woman in rankings to ever beat a top seed in a Slam.
"If I would lose that match, it would be like I lost to myself. It was me, myself and I playing on the court," Safina said. "It would hurt a lot."
The worst showing by a US Open top seed came last year when Ana Ivanovic lost in the second round. The Serbian made an earlier exit this year, the 11th seed dropping her opener to Ukraine’s Kateryna Bondarenko 2-6, 6-3, 7-6 (9/7).
Sixth seed Kuznetsova, who ousted Germany’s Julia Goerges 6-3, 6-2, and Sharapova, 22, are the only US Open winners in their draw half. Kuznetsova was down a break early but won 10 of the last 12 games.
"First match is always tough," Kuznetsova said. "It’s very difficult when you don’t know what to expect."
Safina, 23, will stay atop the rankings after the Open regardless of how she fares in the Open, even if second-rated reigning champion Serena Williams takes her third Slam crown of the year and 12th of her career.
Safina lost to Serena Williams at this year’s Australian Open final and to Kuznetsova in the French Open final. But Rogowska, an 18-year-old from Melbourne, made Safina look far from such lofty levels.
"A few people told me the last couple weeks that she has been struggling a bit mentally," Rogowska said. "They just said, ‘Stick with her and just put pressure on her.’ But you know, no one really expected me to get that close.
"I put pressure on her serve and that seemed to crumble, especially in the tight situations," Rogowska said. "I’m disappointed I lost and I didn’t expect to say that after playing the No. 1 player in the world. It’s a bit weird."
"I personally didn’t think I played great. I thought I could have served much better," Rogowska said. "I was making quite a few mistakes so I was surprised that she was giving me free points."