NEW YORK — As her 40th birthday approaches, Patty Schnyder came back to tennis for nights like this — facing Maria Sharapova at the U.S. Open under the lights in a 14,000-seat arena.
It was Schnyder's first main-draw appearance at a major tournament since 2011, and she did make things interesting, erasing a big deficit in the second set only to fall short of pushing their match to a third, eventually losing to five-time major champion Sharapova 6-2, 7-6 (6) on Tuesday night.
"That," Schnyder said, "was fun."
Schnyder is ranked 186th, so she had to go through qualifying rounds to make it into the main draw — and she became the oldest woman to successfully do that at any Grand Slam tournament. She also was the oldest member of this year's 128-woman singles field, and the third-oldest in U.S. Open history.
"Doesn't feel like I've been gone for such a while," said Schnyder, who after initially retiring seven years ago, returned to a full tour schedule in 2016. "It has been a part of my life for so long, that it feels like it's just great. And it's the passion of my life, and it's just great to be out there."
This was her ninth career meeting against 2006 U.S. Open champion Sharapova, but first in 10 years.
"I knew we'd go out on the court today and kind of relive the memories," said the 31-year-old Sharapova, who is now 8-1 against Schnyder. "I know what a competitor she is. To come back and still have the desire is admirable."
The match was in Louis Armstrong Stadium and, every so often, Schnyder would peek at the large video screens and catch a glimpse of her 3-year-old daughter, Kim, who sat in the stands and was allowed to stay up way past her bedtime on this occasion.
Sharapova raced through the first set, winning all four of Schnyder's service games and holding a 9-0 edge in winners. The second set began with more of the same, as Sharapova went ahead 5-1. But she began to miss more and more, even clutching at her left elbow after one miscue, and that allowed Schnyder — using that familiar looping lefty forehand — to get to 5-all, then force the tiebreaker.
Even then, Sharapova didn't have an easy time of things, needing four match points before she was finally able to close things out and move her U.S. Open night-session record to 21-0.
Schnyder, meanwhile, had never before lost in the first round of this hard-court tournament, going 14-0 during her "first" career.
"She still has incredible hands," was Sharapova's report on Schnyder afterward. "Moves incredibly well for being out of the game for so long. Still very competitive."
Schnyder said she isn't sure quite what to make of this trip to New York. She had tasted success all those years ago, a semifinalist at the 2004 Australian Open and a quarterfinalist six other times, including at Flushing Meadows in 2008 and — wait for it — 1998.
So does this return trip to the bright lights and big city make Schnyder want more? Or did it satisfy a craving and she's ready to go back to retirement?
"I don't know. I'm not really planning (ahead). And now that I'm here and I made the main draw, maybe it gives me different thoughts," replied Schnyder, who turns 40 in December. "I really don't know what I'm up to the next few months."