The day is finally here. Maria Sharapova makes her return to professional tennis after serving a 15-month reduced suspension on Wednesday on the clay courts of the Stuttgart Open. While the return has been highly anticipated and much awaited for her fans and tournament directors, the same can’t be said about her fellow peers.
Before the Russian takes to court for her conveniently-scheduled first round encounter against Italian Robetra Vinci, let’s delve into Sharapova’s time off court since that fateful press conference in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with a “fairly ugly” carpet.
Since the day Sharapova made the announcement about her failed drug test, the multi-millionaire athlete has ensured that she and her team have controlled the narrative of her illegal use of the banned drug meldonium. By admitting her “mistake” and taking responsibility for it, she ensured she stayed a step ahead. Instead of headlines screaming that she was a doping cheat, they instead read as “Maria Sharapova admits taking meldonium, drug newly banned by tennis”.
In her 15 months of suspension, she did everything to stay relevant and in the limelight — from attending an Oscar Awards party to studying at Harvard University. Sharapova did a flurry of appearances for her brand Sugarpova, appeared on an American talk show, went to the Coachella music festival, holidayed in exotic Hawaii and even penned her autobiography — all the while ensuring that every moment was documented and shared on her social media platforms.
Sharapova may have been banned from the WTA tour, but she made sure she wasn’t out of people’s sight. And her off-court activities were peppered with regular updates of her training and practicing, almost suggesting that she was on a break from tennis but raring to come back.
— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) February 27, 2017
Her PR machinery went into overdrive in the months leading up to her return to tennis. Sharapova gave an extensive interview to Vogue, which highlighted her tea drinking habits, her reading list and her dating life. Two weeks before her first match at the Porsche Grand Prix, she was on the cover of four different magazines, including the Time Magazine UK.
In all her interviews, the recently turned 30-year-old emphasised on ITF’s lack of warning and maintained she had made an honest mistake in all her interviews. Sharapova isn’t just one of the best female athletes of this era, she is also the highest paid one, with more brands and endorsements than any of her peers. And her carefully-constructed persona over the last 15 months have helped her retain her biggest sponsors.
But not everyone has been swept away by the narrative that the Sharapova camp tried to dictate. Most of her fellow players have been extremely vocal in their disdain for all the wildcards that the Russian has received, smoothening the path of her return to tennis. Following Stuttgart’s example, that clay court tournaments in Madrid and Rome also welcomed her back with wildcards to the main draw. Roland Garros, the second slam of the year, declared they would announce their decision regarding her wildcard on 16 May, on a Facebook Live stream, no less.
While Romania’s Simona Halep criticised the move citing it sets a bad example for kids picking up the sport, Caroline Wozniacki and Alize Cornet did not mince their words, calling it “disrespectful” and “shameful” respectively. Agnieszka Radwanska believes Sharapova "should rebuild her career a different way, beginning with smaller events." Czech player Karolina Pliskova voiced a different view, suggesting her return was a big plus for the sport. Former champion Kim Clijsters, on the other hand, expressed her support for Sharapova’s return and said it was up to indvidual tournaments to make the decision regarding wildcards.
However, the while her opponents may not approve of all the wildcards gifted to her, Sharapova is well within her rights to demand as many as she likes. A decade-old WTA rule enables a Grand Slam and WTA finals champion to ask for unlimited wildcards. There is no precedent set for a champion returning from a doping suspension, so the wildcards given to Sharapova are fair and reasonable.
What makes Sharapova’s case even stronger is World Anti-Doping Agency’s (Wada) inconsistent and chaotic implementation of the ban on the drug. There is still no definite proof to suggest that the drug enhances a player’s performance and Sharapova remains as one of the relative few athletes to be suspended for its use. Wada also released an ambiguous statement regarding how long the drug stays in a human body, inflicting further damage to their shaky reputation.
Furthermore, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) reduced the initial two-year suspension to 15 months on the grounds that Sharapova was guilty of negligence, but wasn’t an “intentional doper”. CAS also asserted that anti-doping agencies should have provided clearer notice to athletes. Now that Sharapova has served her time, she deserves a fair shot at resuming her career.
The Russian couldn’t have picked a more favourable time for her return to the tour. The first few tournaments she will play are on her late-career favourite — clay courts. The Russian’s last Grand Slam was won on the red dirt at Roland Garros in 2014 after she successfully altered her game for the slower courts.
Sharapova’s nemesis Serena Williams is out for the 2017 season due to her pregnancy, and her other potential rival Victoria Azarenka isn’t expected to make her return after giving birth before late July. Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova is out due to a wrist surgery while Angelique Kerber, who held the World No 1 ranking till last week, hasn’t won a title in 2017 and is struggling with her form.
However, there are plenty of other players who could now pose a threat to the five-time major champion. When Sharapova last played a competitive match at the Australian Open in January 2016, she was ranked seven in the world. Since then, Spaniard Garbine Muguruza has won a slam on clay, Karolina Pliskova has emerged as a consistent force and is ranked No 3, Kerber won another major trophy in the Big Apple and Johanna Konta has cemented her place in the top 10.
Sharapova isn’t going to have an easy time when she resumes playing competitive tennis, and she will have to quickly become match fit if she harbours any ambitions of a swift climb up the rankings. She hasn’t played a proper match in the last 15 months, and the WTA boasts a handful of talented teenagers who are more than capable of handing the 30-year-old shock defeats.
But if Sharapova’s career is anything to go by, she must be relishing these new challenges and will be hungry to prove her point. Her training videos over the past year indicate that she is fit and raring to go. In Stuttgart, Sharapova was forced to practice at a local tennis club with her coach Sven Groeneveld and hitting partner Alex Kuznetsova because her suspension ended only at midnight of 25 April.
Sharapova has spent far too much time on the sidelines, and now that she is back, expect her to fight for every inch in her quest to return to the winner’s circle as well.
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Updated Date: Apr 26, 2017 21:25:27 IST