Stuttgart: Maria Sharapova returns after a 15-month doping ban on Wednesday, desperate to rediscover the glory which brought her five Grand Slams, the world’s top ranking and a spectacular multi-million dollar lifestyle.
The poster girl of women’s tennis won’t necessarily be welcomed back with open arms by rivals who were already suspicious of the towering Russian’s ice-cold detachment even before her fall from grace.
However, Sharapova isn’t losing any sleep as the 30-year-old prepares for her first match since being defeated by Serena Williams in the 2016 Australian Open quarter-finals
“That is the least of my concerns. I know that I am respected in my field. I see it in how my opponents play against me,” said Sharapova who was controversially handed a wild card into this week’s Stuttgart event, a clay court tournament sponsored by Porsche, one of her headline backers.
She was even given a Wednesday start as that’s the day her ban — imposed for testing positive for meldonium at last year’s Australian Open — comes to an end.
Sharapova, who starts her Stuttgart campaign against Italian veteran Roberta Vinci, had been taking the over-the-counter cardiac supplement when it was within the rules, but was later reclassified as a prohibited drug.
Far from being remorseful, Sharapova recently hit out at tennis authorities for failing to give her sufficient warning that meldonium had become a banned substance.
The Russian will step onto centre court at 1830 (1630 GMT) on Wednesday and could not have picked a better tournament for her return, having won the Stuttgart title three times, and suffering just one defeat.
If she gets through her opener, she could face Poland’s Agnieszka Radwanska, one of her fiercest critics, in the second round.
Radwanska, the sixth-seed in Stuttgart, expects a ‘fierce’ return from the Russian, but says Sharapova should have had to qualify on merit rather than being given a free pass on a wild card.
“This kind of entry into the tournament should apply to players who dropped in the ranking because of injury, illness or some other random event. Not for those suspended for doping,” said Radwanska.
Sharapova’s agent Max Eisenbud believes his client’s rivals are motivated solely by jealousy especially with Sharapova battling also for a French Open wild card.
“All those ‘journeyman’ players like Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki who have never won a slam and the next generation passing them. They are smart to try to keep Maria out of Paris,” Eisenbud said.
“NO Serena, NO Maria, NO Vika, NO Petra, it’s their last chance to win a slam,” he added, a nod to the absence of pregnant Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and Victoria Azarenka, expected to return in July after having a baby.
Sharapova can expect plenty of support from the Stuttgart organisers as her return is the highlight in the tournament’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
As an ambassador for Porsche, she is sure of a warm welcome. Her confectionary brand — Sugarpova — will have a stand in the tournament’s retail village.
Tournament director Markus Guenthardt knows her presence will boost ticket sales. “Her return in the Porsche Arena is a fabulous present for our fantastic spectators and is certain to be one of the sporting and emotional highlights of our anniversary tournament,” he said.
As well as Radwanska, many of her other potential Stuttgart rivals have made it clear they disapprove of her getting a helping hand into the main draw.
Germany’s Angelique Kerber, this year’s top seed and the only player to have beaten Sharapova in Stuttgart, said her place should have gone to local talent.
“It’s a German tournament, and we [have] so many good German players, so this is also a little bit strange,” said Kerber.
“It’s also strange for the players, that she can walk on site on Wednesday and she can play on Wednesday.”
What’s the buzz
Against her return
Carolina Wozniacki (Denmark) “I think it’s very questionable, allowing, no matter who it is, a player that is still banned to play a tournament that week. From the tournament side, it’s disrespectful to the other players and the WTA. But it is what it is. Obviously rules are twisted and turned in favour of who wants to do what.”
Angelique Kerber (Germany) “It’s a German tournament, and we (have) so many good German players, so this is also a little bit strange. It’s also strange for the players, that she can walk on site on Wednesday and she can play on Wednesday.”
Andy Murray (Great Britain) “I think you should really have to work your way back. The majority of tournaments are going to do what they think is best for their event. If they think having big names there is going to sell more seats, then they’re going to do that.”
For her return
Victoria Azarenka: “I think it’s good for tennis. She has such a huge fanbase and obviously that’s going to bring more attraction to see how she will do, so I think it’s good for tennis, good entertainment.”
Svetlana Kuznetsova: “If we talk about cheaters, people who cheat, you would say: ‘Why would cheaters get a wild card?’, but then if there is some mistake, you know, it’s a little bit of a different story.”
Venus Williams: “The bodies have made their decision, and she has an opportunity to come back and continue her career. I think she should be allowed to continue that. If people want to give her wildcards, I guess that’s the tournaments’ decision. It will be nice to have her back in the game.”