Players weigh in on the Maria Sharapova wildcard debate

Sport360 staff 11/03/2017

Maria Sharapova returns from her doping suspension next month and has already received invitations for Stuttgart – where they’ll allow her to show up two days late for the event so she can serve out her ban – as well as Madrid and Rome.

Whether she’ll get wildcards for the grand slams remains to be seen. A number of players have weighed in on the subject, as you can see in our gallery above.

What do you make of Sharapova's return, should she be given wildcards or be made to work her way back up to the top of the game?

Have your say in the poll and comments below, by using #360fans on Twitter or getting in touch via Facebook.

*Quotes as seen in the New York Times and the WTA official website

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INTERVIEW: Khachanov looking to ride the NextGen wave

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Rising Russian: Karen Khachanov.

Those following the action at Indian Wells this week may have spotted a tall Russian with a booming serve and a lightning-fast forehand defeating former world No5 Tommy Robredo in the first round.

His name is Karen Khachanov and his straight-sets triumph over the veteran Spaniard was his first-ever match win at an ATP Masters 1000 tournament.

The 20-year-old Russian is the second-youngest player in the world’s top-52 and is one of the ATP’s ‘NextGen’ stars to watch (players aged 21-and-under on the professional tour).

He had a breakthrough 2016 where he claimed his first ATP title, in Chengdu, last October and is already drawing comparisons to his fellow Russian Marat Safin – the retired two-time grand slam champion and ex-world No1.

Safin was one of Khachanov’s greatest inspirations growing up and while they’re both tall, powerful and hail from the same country, a quick conversation with the young talent makes one realise that the most common trait the two Muscovites share is perhaps their big personality, rather than any physical feature or birthplace.

Safin was renowned for his fiery temperament on the court but he was also charismatic and charming off of it, impressing in the press conference room with his quick wit and unfiltered remarks.

Khachanov, unlike some of his ‘NextGen’ peers, who have either made headlines thanks to controversy, or are curt with the media, seems to be at ease with the attention he’s been getting.

“I think I’m a charismatic person,” the world No52 told Sport360 when asked to describe his personality.

“I like to joke also… I think I have a strong personality – a strong and charismatic personality.”

Does he feel comfortable talking to strangers and fulfilling his press duties?

“What do you think?” he replies with a smile.

At the age of 15, Khachanov moved from Russia to Croatia to train in Split with Goran Ivanisevic’s ex-coach Vedran Martic. Less than two years later, in April 2014, he relocated once again, this time to Barcelona, where he is currently coached by Galo Blanco, who formerly worked with Milos Raonic.

“I think I was quite mature at that time in a way to be alone and start being away from home. I think I dealt with it quite well,” he recalls of the time he first left home as a young teenager.

“I got more used to it with time, at the end of the day, tennis players travel all year, so you’re traveling every week and most of the time you’re away from home. Of course at that age it was tougher. At the beginning I was missing more my family but you get used to it as you’re growing up.”

Khachanov does not sound like your typical 20-year-old athlete. He says he spends his free time playing chess, reading novels – his favourite author is Erich Maria Remarque – and Russian history books, and watching “cultural programmes”.

“I like to play basketball if I can,” he adds.

He’s working on his Spanish – which isn’t as bad as he claims it is – and says he regrets not learning it from the moment he touched down in Barcelona three years ago.

ATP's NextGen at Indian Wells.

ATP’s NextGen at Indian Wells.

In an attempt to promote the tour’s budding stars, the ATP created the Road to Milan, a race for the ‘NextGen’ players that culminates with a top-eight tournament similar to the format of the World Tour Finals.

After years of concern over the lack of emerging talent, the men’s circuit is witnessing promising signs with the likes of Nick Kyrgios, Sascha Zverev, and Khachanov all picking up maiden titles last season.

Khachanov admits he keeps tabs on his peers and is inspired by their success.

“It was a funny thing last year. Sascha won his first title in St. Petersburg, he beat me in the first round. And then I was practicing hard during that week and I saw that he did it, so I can make it also. And then next week in Chengdu I won my first title,” explained Khachanov.

“And then the week after, Nick Kyrgios won his third title, in Tokyo. So for sure we’re watching how the others are playing and it gives us more motivation I think, it inspires us.”

Khachanov’s start to 2017 has been a rocky one. He ended a six-match losing streak with his win over Robredo on Thursday, and it appears adjusting to the intensity of the circuit in his first full season on the ATP tour is proving challenging.

“It’s everything. You have to have a better level of tennis, be prepared physically, mentally of course, to play every match 100 per cent. Because against better guys who are ranked higher than you, you have to get ready and play every match full,” he says of making the step up to the elite level.

Khachanov, who next faces the 11th-seeded David Goffin in the Indian Wells second round, is hoping to make a name for himself although he is aware of the Safin comparisons.

“I think some people compare us to each other. He was one of my favourite players when I was growing up, so I was following him. He was No1 in the world,” he says of the 37-year-old Russian.

“I think I was trying to look how he plays and try to – not copy, but follow his game. I don’t think we have really similar technique, let’s say, with my forehand, but I was looking more at the players who have an aggressive way of playing.”

Khachanov also admires Juan Martin del Potro and says his choice of idols is probably why he considers the US Open his favourite tournament – a place where both Safin and the Argentine both enjoyed their first grand slam title success.

Asked if he has any goals for the season, Khachanov said: “I don’t like to put goals ranking-wise. I’d rather focus more on my improvement with my team, the things that we were working on during the offseason and that we have to keep doing during the start of the season and during the whole year. So then we’ll see where it brings me at the end of the year.”

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Rising teens Naomi Osaka and Ana Konjuh discuss challenges of life on tour

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On the rise: Naomi Osaka.

As the tennis tour moves from one desert to another with action kicking off tomorrow at Indian Wells following a two-week stop in the Middle East, a group of young players are hoping to make a statement at one of the biggest tournaments on the circuit.

Of the six top-100 players born in 1997 or later, four of them will be making their Indian Wells main draw debut this week by virtue of their ranking: Ana Konjuh (No33), Naomi Osaka (No52), Catherine “Cici” Bellis (No55) and Jelena Ostapenko (No64).

The remaining two are Russian pair Daria Kasatkina (No35), who made a stunning run to the quarter-finals in the California desert last year on her first appearance, and Natalia Vikhlyantseva (No78), who is currently contesting the qualifying rounds.

Barring Vikhlyantseva, who fell in qualies, members of the young crew all featured in the main draw in Dubai for the first time last month and are still getting used to showing up at the tour’s top-tier events.

Each one of them is unique and they’ve progressed at different paces, but they share common features: They’re all ambitious and they all get along.

Osaka, a 19-year-old Japanese-Haitian who is based in Florida, is perhaps the most compelling of the bunch. She reached the third round in her first three grand slam main draw outings and made her first final appearance in Tokyo last fall, beating the likes of Dominika Cibulkova en route.

She boasts a powerful, brave game that is a stark contrast to her quirky, shy, soft-spoken persona off the court.

Former world No2 Agnieszka Radwanska described Osaka as having “adult tennis” but the teenager laughs when the Pole’s comments are relayed to her.

“That surprises me. I think she thinks I’m like a brainless ball-basher,” Osaka told Sport360 with a self-deprecating chuckle on the sidelines of the Dubai tournament two weeks ago.

“I feel that I’m working on a few things and I need time to adjust to how that is. I feel I have to mature a little bit more and everything is a little bit of a new experience still. This is the first time I’ve played this tournament, I’m actually happy I won a round,” she said following her second round exit in the Emirates.

“I’m the type of player that has to keep doing certain things no matter if I’m losing or not, just to practice it. I’m supposed to be looking to win the tournament not win the match. So like the bigger picture other than just winning this match, I have to think about how I’m going to play in the future. I want to develop into a player that is like an all-rounder that is very aggressive.”

Osaka isn’t just making adjustments to her game to compete at a higher level, she’s also been working on her anxiety, which she says she’s been doing a much better job at dealing with it this year compared to the past.

She’s also been trying to make friends. Osaka has been daring herself to get in touch with fellow players on social media, as a start, and now actually says hello to a few peers, like Konjuh, a Croatian big-hitter who is far more outgoing.

“I think all the other girls my age, they’re probably all friends because they played the juniors together and I didn’t. So I’m kind of like a strange person on the side trying to get in,” explains Osaka. “But for me personally I think it’s a bit sad if you don’t have any friends here because you see everyone all year round, so to isolate yourself from everyone – that would be lonely I think.”

She apologises when I tell her I follow her on Snapchat – not realising how compelling she is on the social media network – and jokes that Konjuh might find it “creepy” that Osaka considers her a friend.

“I say hi to people. But it’s very hard for me. I have more friends now, like people I can have conversations with, but I think I have to see them more, because I’m still new a little bit, so I think when they get used to me, being really weird, then maybe they’ll talk to me more,” she adds.

Osaka, the 2016 WTA Newcomer of the Year, signed a worldwide marketing and management agreement with IMG last fall. She says joining the sports management giants has been an illuminating experience.

“It’s really kind of fascinating a little bit but it also makes me want to push myself more to do better so that I feel like their choice was justified,” she admits. “I think I did really well in Tokyo and that was kind of like the first (tournament after which I signed with them) and then it’s been like a roller coaster. I think I’m going to do well this year I just have to get over some bumps.”

In what way does she find it fascinating?

“A lot of new things that I’ve seen the good players do and I don’t really consider myself like a good player, like Agnieszka Radwanska and Belinda Bencic. I’m like ‘oh, they want me to do this? Why? People don’t really care about me’. It’s really new everything,” she says sheepishly.

SEARCHING FOR PATIENCE

Konjuh, a former junior world No1 who won both the Australian and US Open girls’ singles titles in 2013, is the highest-ranked of the group and enjoyed a run to the quarters in Dubai before she fell to Angelique Kerber.

She posted her biggest result to date at the US Open last year when she reached the quarter-finals, beating Radwanska along the way.

The 19-year-old from Dubrovnik feels having several teens like herself, rising through the ranks, has been a big help, although she admits life on the pro circuit can often get in the way of childhood friendships.

“In juniors it was a bit different because we all hung out, it wasn’t that professional,” said Konjuh.

“At this level now, you have your team, it’s a pretty big team, you have three, four people with you, so you don’t really have time to relax and just hang out. But I have a few friends from juniors, (ex-world No7) Belinda Bencic, Jelena Ostapenko, Daria Kasatkina, we grew up together so it’s pretty awesome to have them here. I think we motivate each other to be better, so we’re happy to have each other.”

Ana Konjuh in Dubai.

Ana Konjuh in Dubai.

Konjuh considers “being stubborn” her greatest asset and you can tell just from watching her matches. She is the third child amongst four daughters and says she grew up in a female-dominant environment which she believes may have attributed to her strong personality.

She just started working with a new coach, Zeljko Krajan, who is Croatia’s Davis Cup captain, and hopes he can help her add patience to her game.

“I’m still young so practice is still an important thing for me. So I try not to play as many tournaments and have a few weeks of training in between,” she says. “I’m an aggressive player so I try to make points a bit faster than I should so I need to become more patient to be on the court longer, even if I don’t want to.”

Konjuh is still in the phase where she’s enjoying the new stops on tour where she hadn’t visited before and there are tournaments she’d love to cross off her list like Acapulco and Istanbul, although her father won’t let her go to the latter right now for safety reasons.

While the younger players are trying to make waves on tour, the fact remains that the world No1 is the 35-year-old Serena Williams, who recently beat her older sister Venus, 36, in the Australian Open final.

“It makes you think you have 15 more years to play tennis,” said Konjuh, referring to that vintage Melbourne final.

“I say to myself to stop maybe earlier because I would like to have a family and a life after tennis so I really hope I can make my dreams come true before I turn 28 or 29 so I can live the rest of my life enjoying what I did before.

“But they’re 35, 36, it makes you think, it’s a slam final, not a smaller tournament, and I think they motivate you to work harder and that at whatever age you are, everything is possible.”

Halfway through the conversation, Konjuh is interrupted by both Kasatkina, and 22-year-old Tunisian Ons Jabeur, who cracked a few jokes with the Croatian before moving on.

“It’s very nice that we’re like together, not fighting, or something like this,” says Kasatkina. “It’s good because we’re the next generation, we have to be like the example for the kids, for the future champions, so it’s good.”

Jabeur believes people have the wrong impression about the women’s locker room and that it’s not the frosty, cut-throat environment you’d expect it to be. The younger generation seem keen to keep things friendly, at least for now.

“They have the wrong idea about women in the locker room. That we fight or we have knives or something. No we’re cool. I’m friends with everyone. We’re cooler than men, I tell you,” says Jabeur with a laugh.

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