Stuttgart: Maria Sharapova arrived to polite applause from the fans at the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart for her comeback match from a doping ban but left blowing kisses amid massive cheers. The Russian star showed only a little rustiness in the beginning as she ousted Roberta Vinci 7-5, 6-3 with the help of 11 aces and 24 winners — to her opponent’s six.
There were the familiar crushing returns, forehands and backhands, the fist pumps and the grunting, as she eventually overwhelmed the former US Open finalist Vinci in her return to the sport she named “a jigsaw puzzle and I missed that.” Vinci had been among the athletes who had been critical of tournament organisers who handed Sharapova a wildcard entry because she had lost all ranking points during the ban imposed after she tested positive for meldonium at last year’s Australian Open.
Sharapova refused to be drawn into the debate, insisting only that “I am not offered trophies on silver platters. I still have to win matches.” She said it was “my job to perform well on the court” and not to build bridges after criticism from other players on the wildcard, or to ask tournaments for wildcards. Citing confidentiality rules she also did not want to go into details about whether she had found another medication to replace the meldonium she had used for a decade to treat a family condition of diabetes which could lead to heart problems.
The Stuttgart crew let her play less than 24 hours after the expiration of her ban, citing past merits at the event she won three times and her overall status as a global sports icon as former number one and winner of a career grand slam.
That showed in the huge media attention, with some two dozen reporters already on hand in the morning to watch her train shortly after 9 am for the first time on the indoor clay centre court. Fans got a first glimpse of her in the early afternoon when she trained again on a court in the midst of the sponsors’ village. But the real test awaited her in the evening where a banner reading “Welcome back to Stuttgart Maria. Go for number 4” awaited her in the Porsche Arena.
Clad in a lilac skirt and bright orange top, Sharapova trailed 2-0 early on but soon regrouped for victory and a second-round date with compatriot Ekaterina Makarova.
Sharapova has always been meticulous in the planning and executing of her career, and the comeback only confirmed this. “I kept in shape but I put the racket away for a bit and it really invigorated me for when I came back in January and started training,” Sharapova said. “I didn’t know when I’d be back and I wanted to do other things, to learn and to explore. I went to school for a little bit, I worked a little bit and I was growing my business. I had a pretty normal life for a while.”
Sharapova — for many years the best earning women’s athlete in any sport with an estimated $20 million per year from prize money, endorsements and her sweets brand Sugarpova — said she developed almost “too many interests” during her time off. But at the same time her love for the game and the itch to return was strong.
“It’s the best feeling in the world, those first few seconds before you enter the arena. To know you were walking back out there was special. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” she said. “This is what I’ve done for so long. When you compete you block everything else out. I’m a competitor, that’s when I’m at my best.”
Sharapova should not be allowed to play again
Canadian Eugenie Bouchard has lashed out at the WTA for giving Maria Sharapova the chance to compete in tournaments after serving a 15-month doping ban and said the Russian is a “cheater” who should never be allowed to play again.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced her ban to 15 months, while finding Sharapova was not an “intentional doper ”but“ bore some degree of fault” for relying on her agent to check the prohibited list for changes and failing to ensure he had done so.
Bouchard, a 2014 Wimbledon finalist, told the Istanbul-based TRT World in an interview that a bad example had been set. “She’s a cheater and… I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again,” she said.