Maria Sharapova lost in the semi-finals in Stuttgart on Saturday, her controversial comeback from a 15-month doping ban ending in defeat to one of her biggest critics.
Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam winner and former world number one, lost 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 to Kristina Mladenovic as the Russian exited her first tournament back from a ban after testing positive for meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open.
“I’m not angry, I’d have loved to have used the opportunity when I was ahead in the second set, so I had a bit of a let down which allowed her to get back in the match, gain confidence and play well,” said Sharapova.
Mladenovic has been a vocal critic of Sharapova’s return to tennis and on the eve of their semi accused her of getting “extra help”, having been handed wild cards to play at the Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome tournaments.
Having started her comeback with a world ranking of zero on Wednesday, due to her ban, reaching the semi-final means Sharapova has already moved up to 260th in the world.
Sharapova refused to blame a lack of fitness for her defeat, but says she needs match practise after her enforced break.
“If at the start of the week I’d said I’d be in this position, I’d be pretty happy with that,” she said.
“The way I played, I was really happy with that. You are never sure what level you are going to come onto the court with, but I feel this is a great base with which I started here.”
Sharapova will learn on May 16 whether she will be given a wild card for the main draw at Roland Garros and Mladenovic was complimentary of the Russian after her semi-final victory.
It was like she never left. Maria Sharapova was sliding, grunting, battling and eventually winning a tough encounter with Roberta Vinci in her first match back from a 15-month doping suspension on Wednesday night in Stuttgart.
The Russian former world No1 fought hard to claim a statement victory over Vinci, 7-5, 6-3 in one hour 43 minutes to booked a last-16 clash with her compatriot Ekaterina Makarova.
Walking out on centre court at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix under much scrutiny for receiving special treatment from the tournament organisers, who allowed her to play her first round on day three so she could serve out her suspension, Sharapova did what she does best – she withstood the pressure and won a tennis match.
While she could not escape some early nerves – she double-faulted once on her way to a 0-2 deficit – she recovered immediately to draw level.
The dramatic build-up to her return from suspension did not subside once she stepped on court. Sharapova coming back to tennis after 15 months was a big deal and it seemed like the whole world was watching. Even some of her fellow players were in the stands including Russians Svetlana Kuznetsova and Makarova.
Vinci, down to No35 in the world after peaking at No7 back in 2015 when she made the US Open final, saved one break point after the other as Sharapova kept upping the pressure on the Italian’s serve with some signature return winners.
She produced a clutch hold that included two aces to level at 5-5 and finally converted a break point in the next game to inch ahead. She served out the set comfortably to wrap up a 59-minute opening stanza.
Sharapova quickly went up a break in the second set, mixing up her shots with the odd dropper, and serving well when she needed to. She finished the contest with an impressive tally of 11 aces to move into the second round.
“It’s the best feeling in the world to walk out (on court), it’s been a stage of mine since I was a young girl and it was very special,” said Sharapova who celebrated her win with a succession of double fist pumps and a broad smile before blowing kisses to all corners of the Porsche Arena. “I have been waiting for this a long time.”
The victory came on the same day the French Tennis Federation (FFT) revealed they will make the announcement of their decision on whether they will grant Maria Sharapova a wildcard for the Roland Garros main draw via a Facebook Live on May 16.
Maria Sharapova will learn her @rolandgarros fate on May 16 via a FFT Facebook Live. Do you think she should get a main draw wildcard?— Sport360° (@Sport360) April 26, 2017
Sharapova – who has already moved up to a provisional live ranking of 510 – must reach the Stuttgart final in order to clinch a spot in the Roland Garros qualifying draw. Much has been made on whether the 30-year-old, who is now a doping offender (CAS ruled that it was unintentional), should be granted wildcards into the majors and other events.
Canadian former Wimbledon runner-up Eugenie Bouchard is the latest to oppose tournaments’ decision to invite Sharapova (she has wildcards for Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome so far) and went full blast on her former idol saying: “She’s a cheater. I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again.”
Ex-world No1 Andy Roddick said it was naive to fault tournaments for doing what is best for them.
The American said in an interview with www.insidetennis.com: “It seems a little a naive to me. I have a hard time having people trying to play judge and jury after time has been served…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.”
As expected, Sharapova looked in great shape in her first match back. She spent 15 months preparing for this moment and delivered in impressive fashion. In a high-pressure situation, she rose above it all and got the win. Her movement was great, she showed variety in her shots and fired 11 aces. Her first serve percentage was a bit low – 59 per cent – but was only broken once, in her first service game. She is 6-0 head-to-head against Makarova and can be expected to move into the quarter-finals.
Exit stage: Sharapova— René Denfeld (@Renestance) April 26, 2017
Just a bit of a commotion at the end. pic.twitter.com/2vkha6nMoG
Whether you’re a fan of her or not, and whether you think she should be playing Stuttgart this week or not – there’s no denying that Maria Sharapova’s return from her 15-month doping suspension on Wednesday is a big deal.
The Russian, who was ranked No5 in the world when she tested positive for the prohibited substance meldonium in January 2016, will only be allowed on-site at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix starting Wednesday – the third day of the German tournament – with her ban ending midnight on Tuesday. She is a three-time Stuttgart champion and has only lost just once there throughout her career.
She is appearing at the tournament by virtue of a wildcard – Porsche sponsor both her and the event – which was a decision from the organisers that has irked many of her peers.
Here’s everything you need to know about Sharapova’s return…
WHO IS SHE PLAYING?
Sharapova will begin her Stuttgart campaign against world No36 Roberta Vinci of Italy. It will be the third meeting of their career and first since 2012. She could face Agnieszka Radwanska in the second round.
WHAT TIME IS THE MATCH AND WILL IT BE ON TV?
Sharapova will play at 20:30 UAE time and the match will be aired on beIN Sports 12HD.
WHO ELSE IS PLAYING THE TOURNAMENT?
Two-time defending champion Angelique Kerber is one of seven top-10 players taking part in the tournament. The only absent top-10 players are Serena Williams (pregnant), Dominika Cibulkova (wrist), and Madison Keys (wrist).
HOW MANY POINTS CAN SHARAPOVA WIN IF SHE WINS THE TITLE?
The winner gets 470 points while the runner-up gets 305.
CAN SHE PLAY THE FRENCH OPEN?
The entry deadline for the main draw of the French Open has passed meaning the only way Sharapova can play Paris would be either via a wildcard or through qualifying. If she reaches the final in Stuttgart, the 305 points she would pick up would place her within the top-180 in the world rankings, which would be enough to get a spot in Roland Garros qualifying prior to the qualifying entry deadline on May 1. If she doesn’t make the final, then the only way she can compete in Paris would be a wildcard. French Open organisers are expected to make a final decision on the matter on May 15.
WHICH TOURNAMENTS IS SHE CONFIRMED TO PLAY?
Sharapova has also received wildcards for Madrid (May 6-13) and Rome (May 15-21).
WHO ISN’T HAPPY ABOUT HER GETTING WILDCARDS?
For starters, her first round opponent, Vinci. The 34-year-old Italian was quoted by Strait Times saying: “My personal opinion is (I do) not agree about wild cards… about Rome, about other tournaments…
“She is a great player – I don’t have nothing against her. She made her mistakes for sure. She can return to play, but without wild cards. I know (Sharapova) is important for the WTA, for tennis, for everything. She is a great person, a great champion. My personal opinion is this.”
Others against her getting a wildcard or her being allowed to play Stuttgart even though she is still suspended at the start of the event include Caroline Wozniacki, Kerber and Radwanska.
Radwanska, a potential second round opponent for Sharapova, said: “This kind of entry into the tournament should apply to players who dropped in the ranking because of injury, illness or some other random event. Not for those suspended for doping. Maria should recover some other way, starting with smaller events.”
HAS ANYONE BEEN IN SUPPORT OF HER RETURN?
Yes, a few, including Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro, Venus Williams, Victoria Azarenka, and Sharapova’s compatriot Svetlana Kuznetsova.
“I think it’s good for tennis. She has such a huge fanbase and obviously that’s going to bring more attraction to see how she will do, so I think it’s good for tennis, good entertainment,” said Azarenka.
HAS A LOT CHANGED SINCE SHE WAS SUSPENDED?
Serena Williams is pregnant and out until 2018, Azarenka had a baby and is set to return this July in Stanford, Kerber rose to No1 multiple times and won two majors, and Garbine Muguruza is a grand slam champion.