Sharapova Wins First Match Back, Stays Neutral in Suspension Debate

With her first match back from suspension, Maria Sharapova has become one of the most polarizing forces in tennis.

Updated: April 27, 2017 • 6:10 PM ET

Maria Sharapova has her fair share of supporters and detractors.

For all the snark generated by players, pundits and tennis higher-ups, you would think that the return to tennis of former No. 1 Maria Sharapova on Wednesday after a 15-month doping suspension would have been met with discourteous jeers, boos and, perhaps, rotten tomatoes. Alas, that was not the case at the Porsche Grand Prix tennis tournament in Stuttgart, Germany yesterday. 


The sold-out Porsche Arena, which seats 4,500, welcomed Sharapova with neither harsh rebukes nor standing ovations. Instead, fans rewarded the three-time Stuttgart champion (2012, 2013, 2014) with lukewarm applause, as she strutted across the red-clay court with her iconic stature and indelible disassociation with anything and anyone who would interrupt her steely concentration. At first glance, Sharapova had not changed. 


Her opponent, 33-year-old Roberta Vinci, had never gotten more than a couple games off Sharapova in their two previous meetings. So as the first set rocked along, Vinci’s confidence piqued in the face of anticipation. Fans seemed to equally favor both women. They desired a good match, and not a showdown between the two opposing groups that had loudly ushered in the occasion. 


Group one, yes, the haters, had been disparaging Sharapova since she publicly announced the results of a failed drug test taken after her quarterfinal loss to Serena Williams at the 2016 Australian Open. Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, a drug that was added to the World Anti-doping Agency’s prohibited list as of Jan. 1, 2016. She claimed that she, nor anyone in her camp, read the email from W.A.D.A., which announced the change. Hence, Sharapova continued to ingest the drug that had been prescribed for her 10 years earlier for a heart irregularity. 


The International Tennis Federation initially suspended Sharapova for two years, but with an appeal to the Court of Sport Arbitration, the suspension was reduced to 15 months. That ban ended on Wednesday.


When she appeared on court yesterday, it was the first time she’d been allowed to enter the tournament’s grounds. For days, she practiced at a nearby club. The biggest pea under the mattress for this group was the way she gained access to her return, one she’d been playing in earnest for 23 of her 30 years. 


Her ranking had fallen well off the WTA charts. Normally, a player would have to fight their way back up the ladder. But Sharapova’s a shrewd business person and tennis star. The gods would be in her favor, or so she thought. Therefore, she applied for a wildcard into the main draw of this 40-year-old tournament and got one. 


Clearly a decision driven by business, Stuttgart awarded the wildcard, as did Madrid and Rome, two other WTA premier red-clay court tournaments that run up to The French Open, the second Grand Slam of the season and one of importance to Sharapova. However, and probably to her dismay, The French Federation of Tennis did not immediately grant her a wildcard into the main draw, a title she has won twice. And it only announced yesterday that it will decide the matter regarding Sharapova on May 16.


“I have a hard time having people trying to play judge and jury after time has been served,” Andy Roddick said, as reported by “Do I think she deserves a wildcard? Sure, I think the wildcard should go to the people who can generate the most interest. How do you define wildcard? It should go to someone who generates the most interest, someone who can actually make a run [in the tournament] or some of the best players available to a given tournament. She fits the criteria of all of those. I don’t have a problem with it and I’m not going to criticize a tournament for doing what’s in their best interest.”


Roddick’s measured comment flew in the face of those articulated by players such as Andy Murray and Roger Federer. Caroline Wozniacki, currently ranked No. 11 in the world, called Sharapova’s wild-card entry “disrespectful,” according to The New York Times. Angelique Kerber, world No. 2 and Stuttgart’s defending champion, also opposed the wildcard entry.


“I’m being offered wild cards by the tournament directors and I’m accepting them to be able to compete in the draw,” Sharapova said. “I’m not receiving a wild card to receive a trophy and a golden platter.”


But the drumbeat from the villainizers kept on playing yesterday. Eugenie Bouchard’s comment topped the charts.


“She's a cheater and so to me, I don't think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again,” the Canadian and former top 5 player said in an interview from the TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Cup.  


Barry Bonds, Pete Rose and Alex Rodriguez have felt similar stinging retribution. 


Did any of this bother Sharapova? No. At least not on the outside, as seen by her demeanor on court yesterday. Yes, she was broken in her opening game, as her timing on the ball was off. Her anticipation was sluggish, too, but Sharapova reversed that as her momentum grew and she broke to win the first set. Her power game saved her. 


Vinci’s craftiness and brilliance at the net was not enough to unsettle Sharapova’s proven and accurate ball placement, while Sharapova’s serve out-performed expectations. She wracked up 11 aces to Vinci’s zero, closing the match 7-5, 6-3 with a loud ‘come on.’ She was back.


“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Sharapova said via ABC News. “To know I would be walking back into the arena was very special. I was waiting for this moment for a long time.”


Sharapova beat countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova today in her second-round match, 7-5, 6-1. Next is 21-year-old Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, who has no career titles and had to qualify for the main draw in Stuttgart because her ranking was too low at No. 73. Kontaveit has never met Sharapova on court, but could be deterred a bit. Sharapova is one of Kontaveit’s tennis idols, according to her WTA profile.


Perhaps that’s where the discussion should head. On how Sharapova performs, rather than what should have happened. That’s not to say that the I.T.F. and W.A.D.A. don’t have some work to do. Objective panels and policies don’t seem to exist. Interpretations are uneven, the same way they were in Sharapova’s case. 


As ESPN reported, the I.T.F. thought Sharapova was taking meldonium to enhance performance. That “[Sharapova] is the sole author of her own undoing.” However, the Court of Sport Arbitration understood Sharapova’s lack of judgement as a fault of the way she was notified by W.A.D.A., thus reducing the suspension.  


All Sharapova wanted from the moment this disastrous affair gained speed was to win tennis matches. A five-time Grand Slam champion plus a multi-million dollar corporate sponsor’s dream, the Russian is of single mind. She prefers to remain isolated and surrounded by few, which pokes at expected social locker-room norms of outgoing camaraderie and positive relationships.


“I can’t control what people say, and I never have,” Sharapova said after her victory over Vinci. “The only thing I can control is what I do out there. I’ve always preferred to walk the walk, and I’ve done that by winning five Grand Slams and being No. 1 in the world.”


“I can’t control what people say, and I never have,” Sharapova said after her victory over Vinci. “The only thing I can control is what I do out there. I’ve always preferred to walk the walk, and I’ve done that by winning five Grand Slams and being No. 1 in the world.”

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