Maria Sharapova received an early Thanksgiving gift on Tuesday with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) reducing her doping ban to 15 months, and perhaps nobody would be more relieved than her sponsors. The five-time Grand Slam champion had set the standards for glamour in women's tennis and has been one of the most marketable faces in sports, with leading corporations making a beeline to have her endorse their products.
The ruling comes as a welcome reprieve for the embattled Russian who will turn 30 just before her suspension elapses on the midnight of 25 April, 2017. Sharapova has repeatedly underlined her desire to return to competitive tennis. But she is a woman without too many friends on the WTA circuit and her comments about the ITF will only serve to alienate the fraternity.
The ranking system is based on a twelve month cycle of results. Unlike in a situation of injury, Sharapova enjoys no protection. She will start her journey next year without a rank or points. ITF guidelines require that a player is ranked 104 or better six weeks ahead of a grand slam, meaning that Sharapova could potentially be seeking a wild card even into the US Open.
Naturally, one of the most marketable woman on the planet will have the sponsors doing her bidding. There will be no shortage of wild cards for the Russian star, who is a five time grand slam champion. But it might be worth killing to earn the right to be a fly on the wall during the AELTC meeting next summer, where they determine the invitations to Wimbledon 2017.
The bigger challenge for Sharapova will be competing with an emerging pack of WTA stars, hungry to take the mantle from an ageing Serena Williams. The adventures of Angelique Kerber, who made three major finals and won two titles, have served to invigorate conversations about a new era in women’s tennis.
Garbine Muguruza, Wimbledon finalist in 2015, took the next step this season when she trounced Serena to win the French Open. Then there are stars such as Simona Halep and Dominika Cibulkova and Agnieszka Radwanska, who are still seeking to drink from the grand slam chalice. They will be determined to prevent the Russian from walking over them in her quest for redemption.
In her last competitive match before the suspension took effect, Sharapova suffered a stinging 4 and 1 loss to her nemesis Serena. It was her 19th defeat at the hands of the great American, a fact that rankles Sharapova. She hasn’t defeated Serena in more than a decade and would like nothing more than to put a couple of victories back on the American.
Then there is the emerging bunch, led by American Madison Keys, who seem eager to script a new chapter in tennis. The inevitable departure of Williams from her high pedestal and the doubts that plague players that have failed to break through for years, provide the younger lot just the opportunity they desire. It will be interesting to watch Sharapova measure up against the younger lot of players.
A comeback to competitive tennis is a demanding transition. The Russian has been spending her time away from courts, fulfilling some long treasured wishes including a brief executive program at the Harvard University and an NBA internship.
The Russian is an intense competitor and there is no doubt that she will begin to work doubly hard on her fitness as she prepares to return to competition during the clay court season next year. Madrid could be her first big event, but she could also play the week before trying to gain some competitive lustre before arriving to a bigger stage.
Players such as Rafael Nadal and Juan Martin Del Potro can vouch for the rigours of a comeback and the effort it takes to sharpen mind and body to the exacting standards in professional tennis. On the other hand, Sharapova can draw inspiration from the story of Kim Clijsters who returned from motherhood for a magical second innings that included grand slam glory.
The wonderful run of world No 1 Angelique Kerber and an inspirational effort by Monica Puig in the Rio Olympics have ensured that tennis has not missed Sharapova too much. But her sponsors, corporations that pour millions of dollars annually into a market built on the Russian’s game and glamour have suffered significant damage. The Russian, once inside the top 25 athletes in income, is on the verge of dropping outside the top 100.
The sponsors will be relieved and happy to have Sharapova back on court next year, even though there will be a huge question mark on her ability to bounce back. A year away late in the career is a massive bridge to cross and the growing physical demands of the sport could prove too much to handle for Sharapova. The Russian's comeback could prove to be more of a commercial rejuvenation rather than one that has anything to do with sport.