-- Maria Sharapova's return from her drug suspension hit another speed bump on Friday when she was drawn to play her first-round US Open match (Aug. 28) against No. 2 seed Simona Halep. It's the most buzzworthy match-up of the first round.
A former US Open champion, Sharapova has been star-crossed since her return from a 15-month doping suspension. Her marquee value earned her a controversial wild card into the Stuttgart event in late April, but many of her peers and pundits criticized the decision. They argued that Sharapova should have to play her way back up through the rankings because of the reason behind her absence.
The French Open, which Sharapova also had won in the course of completing her career Grand Slam, sided with the critics and decided not to offer Sharapova a wild card. Then, the same injury that caused the 30-year-old Russian to pull out of the Rome tournament in the second round also killed her hopes for qualifying for Wimbledon (she had decided not to request a wild card).
In her only appearance since then, Sharapova issued a walkover in her second-round match at Stanford, due to soreness in her left arm. Her record since her return is 6-3, with a retirement and a walkover (which doesn't count as a loss).
However, Sharapova has a perfect 6-0 record against Halep. That includes one Grand Slam match, a lengthy battle in the final of the 2014 French Open. Halep is having an outstanding year, marred only by her inability to take the final step to the No. 1 ranking or a Grand Slam title.
Since Sharapova's return, the Romanian dynamo hasn't lost before the quarterfinals, and she's played two finals, including her loss to Jelena Ostapenko at the French Open. In short, Sharapova has her work cut out for her.
The nightmare draw puts Sharapova on top of our "Pretenders" list in a survey of this year's contenders and pretenders for the title. Here are some of our other selections:
ATP contender: Roger Federer, seeded No. 3, is the man everyone has been talking about. He has a reasonable draw sprinkled with big hitters and shotmakers who aren't likely to grind him down and take advantage of his age of 36.
WTA contender: Garbine Muguruza, seeded No. 3, is on a roll and threatening to take control of the WTA pecking order. She's 9-2 since Wimbledon and has that great combination of athleticism and power that enables a player to dictate her own fate.
ATP pretender: Rafael Nadal may be the top seed, but it's hard to see him breaking out of his pattern of tailing off in the second half of the year. He failed to make the semis at either of the two big summer Masters 1000 events and must be concerned about the way his forehand deserted him in Cincinnati.
WTA pretender: Karolina Pliskova, also top-seeded, backed into the top ranking this summer instead of claiming it outright. Sure she's the defending finalist, and she beat Venus and Serena Williams in back-to-back matches last year, but the pressure of being No. 1 without having won a major yet will get to her. Kristina Mladenovic and CoCo Vandeweghe are potential fourth-round and quarterfinal opponents.
ATP contender: Alexander Zverev, seeded No. 4, is the name on the tongue of every pundit -- and deservedly so. After losing at Wimbledon, he declared that he was tired of "learning" from losses and is ready to win. He's played just nine Grand Slam tournaments in his brief career and hasn't been past the fourth round. But he has two Masters 1000 titles already, despite being just 20 years old. His time has come.
WTA contender: Johanna Konta, seeded No. 7, stalled at the fourth round each of the last two years. She's level-headed, ambitious and aggressive. Her draw is favorable, with No. 30 Julia Goerges as the first seed she's likely to meet (third round).
ATP pretender: Andy Murray, seeded No. 2, hasn't played a match since he was beaten by Sam Querrey in the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. He was slowed by a hip injury that has kept him sidelined until now. Even when healthy, Murray seems to need a lot of matches to get his momentum going and game in a groove. He just hasn't had them.
WTA pretender: Caroline Wozniacki, seeded No. 5, has made a significant comeback this year. She also has been in five finals and lost every one of them to women not named Williams or Muguruza. Her potential pre-final opponents include No. 9 seed Venus Williams and No. 13 Petra Kvitova.
ATP contender: Grigor Dimitrov, seeded No. 7, is coming off the first, long-delayed Masters 1000 win. It could go either way with him because people have invested a lot of faith in him with little payoff for many years. He remains a spectacular talent, and he's still in his prime at 26. He could take control of the top half should Nadal falter.
WTA contender: Elina Svitolina, seeded No. 4, is barely mentioned in many previews. It's partly because her record in the majors thus far has been so-so (just two quarterfinals and an abundance of first- and second-round losses). She's only 23 and 5-1 in finals this year with wins over Wozniacki and Halep. Nothing breeds success like success.
ATP pretender: Nick Kyrgios, seeded No. 14, fired up his base of pundits and fans by reaching the Cincinnati final. Then he wasn't very impressive in his loss to Dimitrov. Kyrgios has enough trouble focusing at a best-of-three, one-week ATP event. The demands of a major seem simply too much for him at this point.
WTA pretender: Angelique Kerber, seeded No. 2, is the defending champion and she's played with so little confidence and success, for so long now, that this one is an easy call. Jelena Ostapenko could take advantage of Kerber's vulnerability should both of them make it to the fourth round.
ATP contender: Don't discount Marin Cilic, seeded No. 5, just yet. He's been battling a strained abductor muscle (it caused him to pull out of Cincinnati), but he's a former champion. He was robbed of his chance to compete at full force due to a bad blister in the Wimbledon final. You can bet he's dying for another shot at a major title.
WTA contender: Madison Keys, seeded No. 15, bounced back from a disappointing Wimbledon with an excellent hard-court season. She won Stanford. Her fourth-round clash with Muguruza in Cincinnati, while a loss, was a thrilling three-set battle. Seemingly over the rust that accrued after her early season wrist surgery, she may be ready to produce that much-predicted Grand Slam title win.
Imagine, Keys and Zverev winning the singles titles. It could happen.