Before Margaret Court’s comments on same-sex marriage became the hot topic of discussion amongst tennis players and the subject of many reporter questions at press conferences, the debate over Maria Sharapova’s return to the pro tour ruled the conversation.
The former world number one and four-time Grand Slam champion made her 2017 debut in Stuttgart, Germany for the Porsche Grand Prix after missing practically the entire 2016 season following her suspension for meldonium.
Sharapova received a wild card into the tournament, something that didn’t sit well with many fellow players.
“I’m not here to be anyone’s judge, but I think a situation like this has highlighted a lot of things that need clarity,” said Great Britain’s Johanna Konta. “I’m sure it’s something that will be looked at in time.”
Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard may have had the most direct and unfiltered comments regarding Sharapova.
“I don’t think that’s right,” Bouchard told TRT World of Sharapova’s inclusion as a wild card. “She is a cheater and so to me, I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again. It’s so unfair to all the other players who do it the right way and are true. From the WTA, it sends the wrong message to young kids: ‘Cheat and we will welcome you back with open arms.’ I don’t think that’s right and she is not someone I can say I look up to anymore.”
The WTA has no rule on which players are eligible to receive wild cards, and those decisions are up to the directors of the tournaments themselves. In that case, giving a star with a loyal fan base like Sharapova entry into your tournament is a rather easy decision, a sentiment shared by WTA CEO Steve Simon.
“Maria is a star. There’s going to be a big impact,” Simon said ahead of Sharapova’s first-round match in Stuttgart. “There are people on all sides of the fence, but it’s a great story. We wish her success. She served her penalty and we look forward to having her back.”
It certainly became the biggest debate of the tennis season and overshadowed whatever was happening inside the white lines. Last year’s U.S. Open finalist Karolina Pliskova had no problems with Sharapova’s return.
“From the tournament’s side I think it’s going to be a big plus,” Pliskova said. “Obviously with Serena being out now, I think tennis definitely needs a star like her. I don’t have anything against it.”
However you feel regarding Sharapova or her suspension, it is really a no brainer for smaller tournaments to want her in their venues to generate buzz and put people in the seats.
Sharapova is not one to overly concern herself with the opinions of her fellow tour members, good, bad or indifferent, as she has never been one to try and become best friends with her opponents.
“I’m not her friend. I don’t think anyone is her friend on the tour,” said Barbora Strycova, who once faced her own doping suspension. “She doesn’t have friends, I don’t think, because she doesn’t talk to anybody.”
It doesn’t help that her agent, Max Eisenbud, alienated some of the tour’s top players such as Agniesza Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki, whom he called ‘journeymen players,’ which earned him a warning from Simon and only further widened the divide between Sharapova’s camp and the rest of the WTA Tour.
“It’s my least favorite place in the world,” Sharapova once said of the WTA locker room. “I do my job at the site. I play my matches. I do what I have to do and I prefer to live my life away from the site rather than talk tennis all day.”
On the court, few are as competitive as Sharapova and that is either a cause or an effect of her lack of socializing with fellow players. So the criticism and backlash from across the world most likely only served as fuel for a fire that was burning for 15 months while suspended.
She began her comeback in Stuttgart and playing a few clay court tournaments in hopes of preparing for a French Open run. She would go on to reach the semifinals in Stuttgart before going to Madrid and losing to her most outspoken critic, Bouchard, in the second round. Her final tournament on clay was in Rome where she retired against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, and awaited the news on whether or not she would receive that wild card to Roland Garros.
Because her ranking slipped below 200 while she was serving her suspension, she required a wild card into the main draw or even into the qualifying draw.
She received neither.
“If there can be a wild card for return from injuries then there cannot be a wild card for return of doping,” French Tennis Federation Bernard Giudicelli said on a Facebook Live broadcast announcing the tournament’s wild cards. “I’m very sorry for Maria, very sorry for her fans. They might be very disappointed … she might be very disappointed. But it’s my mission to protect the game and to protect the high standards of the game played without any doubts on the result.”
So the two-time French Open champion was left watching the two weeks unfold in Paris, as the wide open women’s singles field yielded a Cinderella run by the unseeded 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko, only adding to Sharapova’s motivation.
“If this is what it takes to rise up again, then I am in it all the way, every day,” Sharapova tweeted. “No words, games or actions will ever stop me from reaching my own dreams. And I have many.”
With that mindset, the Russian began training for the next stage of her playing career, which is the hard-court season in the United States and the U.S. Open. Due to injury, she was forced to pull out of the entire grass court season, and will not be at Wimbledon, a tournament she would have had to come through qualifying to be eligible for.
Pliskova is right when she says that tennis could use her star power. With Serena Williams out the remainder of the year and world number one Angelique Kerber struggling thus far in 2017, Sharapova is the kind of player that can have all sports fans, not just tennis fans, talking about women’s tennis.
None of that stuff matters to Sharapova, though. Her only focus is on competing and returning to her winning ways.
“It’s not my job to think if the criticism is personal or not. Words, quotes and articles are not what matters in life, and I learned that very well in the past year,” Sharapova said. “At the end of the day, all that matters is what’s on the court, and that’s why I’m here. This is what I’ve done for so long. When you’re in the moment, you try to block everything out and you compete. I’m a competitor by nature, even when things are not working. That’s what I do. That’s when I am at my best—when I forget about everything and just be me and compete.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com