NEW YORK // Trailing big in the first round of the US Open, Maria Sharapova thought — well, no, she was certain — that she would pull through if she could push her inexperienced opponent to a third set.
And Sharapova was right.
Shrieking as loudly as ever, Sharapova came back from a set and a break down against Heather Watson, the 19-year-old Briton, to win 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 last night, improving to 12-0 this year in matches that go the distance.
"It's just a matter of belief within myself, that no matter how well or bad or good I'm playing, or my opponent is playing, I know I can tough it out," the No 3 seed Sharapova said after her two-hour victory. "No matter what the situation is, I have the belief."
That self-confidence comes not merely from her success in three-setters this season, but also from three grand slam titles, including the 2006 US Open. It's the sort of track record the 102nd-ranked Watson hopes to have one day; last night's match was only her fifth at a major tournament.
Sharapova won six grand slam matches at Wimbledon alone this summer, reaching the final there before losing to Petra Kvitova.
Fresh off that triumph, Kvitova — a 21 year old from the Czech Republic and seeded No 5 in Flushing Meadows - failed to follow it up, flopping at the US Open with a 7-6, 6-3 loss to the 48th-ranked Alexandra Dulgheru of Romania.
Kvitova is the first reigning Wimbledon women's champion to lose her first match at the US Open in the same season. Only three times had the Wimbledon winner bowed out as early as the third round in New York: Sharapova in 2004, Conchita Martinez in 1994, and Billie Jean King in 1973.
"This is something new for me," Kvitova said about her new status as a major champion. "I've felt a little pressure."
She is the only women's seed to exit on Day 1 of the year's last major tournament, joined on the way out by No 15 Viktor Troicki of Serbia, a 3-6, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 loser against Alejandro Falla of Colombia.
At night, 2000 and 2001 US Open champion Venus Williams played her first match in two months and beat the 91st-ranked Vesna Dolonts of Russia 6-4, 6-3. Williams hit six aces and 28 total winners against the weary Dolonts, who spent 12 hours travelling from Moscow on Monday after having flights cancelled Saturday and Sunday because of Hurricane Irene.
"It's always nerve-racking to play the first match after a lay off in a major. It's not really my first choice at all," said Williams, who pulled out of recent tune up tournaments because of a virus. "But I just tried to rely on experience and, I don't know, just tried to get after it. So I was pleased with the level."
Advancing along with Sharapova to the second round were No 2 Vera Zvonareva of Russia, a finalist last year at Wimbledon and the US Open; 16-year-old Madison Keys - the youngest and, at 455th, lowest-ranked woman in the draw - who beat 37-year-old fellow American Jill Craybas 6-2, 6-4; and No 12 Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland, who beat her younger sister Urszula Radwanska 6-2, 6-3.
But the surprise 2009 US Open quarter-finalist Melanie Oudin of the United States lost 6-0, 7-6 to Romina Oprandi of Italy.
Sharapova was one of the seeded players Oudin stunned during her run two years ago, and for a little more than a set Monday, Watson seemed quite capable of registering another significant surprise.
Scrambling along the baseline to get to nearly every ball, Watson forced Sharapova to hit extra shots to win a point. And Sharapova, who said she was not able to practice enough over the weekend because of Hurricane Irene, kept missing.
"There's no doubt that I wasn't playing my best tennis," said Sharapova, who finished with 58 unforced errors, nearly twice as many as Watson. "She was smart in making me hit another ball. I was making so many errors out there. She stuck to her game plan; she kept grinding."
After taking the first set, Watson broke for a 1-0 lead in the second. That's when Sharapova began to turn things around, taking four games in a row. Watson did not go away, though, getting within 4-3 when Sharapova double-faulted, then holding for 4-4 with the Arthur Ashe Stadium crowd supporting the underdog.
But a double-fault by Watson, and two huge return winners by Sharapova, helped the Russian break to end the second set. That sent the match to a third, and Sharapova's as good as it gets there.
"Maria's a fighter. She's never going to give up," said Watson, who got high-fives and autograph requests from fans as she left the court. "That's what makes her a champion. That's why she's won this tournament before."