Maria Sharapova emphatically declared her return to form after months of injury problems on Tuesday as she beat top seed Simona Halep 6-4, 6-4 at the WTA finals in Singapore.
Sharapova showed few signs of rust or fitness problems but she had to overcome a determined fightback from the world number two before finally closing out the victory.
The Russian, who had not completed a match since July when she arrived at the eight-player season finale, now tops Red Group after also beating Agnieszka Radwanska.
Earlier Flavia Pennetta upset Radwanska 7-6 (7/5), 6-4 with Red Group now set to go down to the wire in Thursday’s final round-robin matches.
“It definitely got really tough and I guess those are the moments that you just have to get through when you haven’t played for a long time,” Sharapova said of her match against Halep.
“Especially against the number two player in the world these matches don’t come easy. It definitely showed until the end.”
The five-time Grand Slam-winner broke at the crucial moment for a one-set lead when Halep, serving to stay in the first set, made her first two double faults.
She grabbed a double break to go 5-1 up in the second set before Romania’s Halep belatedly rediscovered her mojo, dragging it back to 5-4 in an inspired spell.
But Sharapova, after a stern talking-to by her coach, then brought up two match points on Halep’s serve and she finished it with a firm backhand into the corner.
– ‘Grand Slam final’ –
Sharapova’s sixth straight win over Halep comes after leg and forearm problems had largely kept her sidelined since her Wimbledon semi-finals loss to Serena Williams.
In the other Red Group match on Tuesday, US Open champion Pennetta kept her hopes of one last title alive with her win over Radwanska.
The 33-year-old, who announced her retirement moments after winning her first Grand Slam title last month, swept past the Pole with a display of controlled aggression.
The Italian, who could have been eliminated on Tuesday, said she was enjoying every moment on the court after declaring her retirement plans.
“It’s the last tournament of the year. It’s the last moment, it’s special to me,” she said.
“Here it’s like you’re playing the final of a Grand Slam every match, so you try your best.”
Victory at the glitzy season climax would be a fairytale farewell for Pennetta, who has held open the door to returning for next year’s Olympics.
But she will first have to find a way past Sharapova, who looks in determined mood as she bids to regain a title she last won aged 17 on debut in 2004.
On that occasion, the Russian won the final against Williams, this year’s defending champion and world number one who has opted not to play in Singapore.
In White Group, Spain’s freshly anointed world number three Garbine Muguruza also looked a major threat when she crushed Lucie Safarova in her first match on Monday. – Agence France-Presse