Maria Sharapova returns to the tennis court on Wednesday in Stuttgart from a 15-month doping ban, amid worldwide attention and an on-going debate over the wildcard entry the Russian tennis superstar has received.
Sharapova, a winner of a career grand slam and former world number one, will play her opening match against a yet to be determined opponent on the first day after the expiration of the ban.
It will be her first match since a quarter-final exit against Serena Williams at the Australian Open in January 2016.
Sharapova’s agent, Max Eisenbud, told CNN last weekend the ban and with it the rest may allow her to play on until the 2020 Olympics, with a gold medal the only major title eluding her.
Eisenbud spoke of “a third career” for Sharapova, who turned 30 on Wednesday, and that he was impressed “just how motivated and how good she was” in training lately.
Sharapova tested positive for the drug meldonium at the Melbourne grand slam after the substance was added to the banned list from January 1, 2016.
She announced the positive test herself in March 2016, and was banned for two years by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
The ban was reduced to 15 months until April 25 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in October because the CAS panel believed she had not doped intentionally and the ITF could have done more to make her that meldonium was to be made illegal.
“In so many ways, I feel like something I love was taken away from me and it will feel really good to have it back. Tennis is my passion and I have missed it,” Sharapova said on her Facebook page after the CAS ruling.
Sharapova has lost all her ranking points and unless she wants to enter small tournaments and play in qualifying she depends on wildcards to get back onto the big stage.
Players including current number one Angelique Kerber have expressed surprise that she got the wildcard – apart from Stuttgart also for Rome and Madrid, while the French Open and Wimbledon remain unclear.
Others have however pointed out how much Sharapova has done for women’s tennis over the years – which also helped her become the top-earning woman in all sports, mainly through endorsements, with an estimated 20 million dollars per year.
Stuttgart tournament director Markus Guenthardt recently told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung that she deserved the wildcard for the clay-court event – as a three-time champion there 2012-2014 and major draw card, and not because she is also a brand ambassador of title sponsors Porsche.
“It was about her sporting value and what she done for the tournament … She is not only a five-time grand slam winner and former number one in the world. She has won here three times,” he said.
“The arena was seething when she was here. We had a steady rise in pre-tournament ticket sales over the past years. Maria has made an important contribution to this.”
Guenthardt said the tournament didn’t change its schedule for her because first-round games have been played on Wednesday every year, and that they consulted with the ITF and the women’s tour WTA before giving her the wildcard.
Guenthardt said he expects a “mainly positive” reaction from the fans while the general assessment will depend on her results at the tournament boasting eight top-10 players led by the two-time reigning champion Kerber.
“She is a fighter. She will surely want to answer the critics on court. We will have to see how good she is. She lacks matches,” Guenthard said.
Stuttgart tournament sports director Anke Huber, a former top-10 player, said: “It will not be easy for Maria. You don’t just go back on the court after 15 months and play like nothing has happened.”
Sharapova meanwhile told German magazine Stern that a possible cool reception is “the least of my concerns … I know that I am respected in my field. I see it in how they play against me.”
Sharapova said last month on Facebook she is training hard – in-between advertising her sweets brand Sugarpova, posting photo shoots for magazines such as Vanity Fair, and announcing her memoir “Unstoppable. My life so far” due for publication in September.
“My training in the last few months has been really good, especially in the last few weeks back on the clay which is really exciting,” she said.
“It is crazy that time has gone by this fast.”