No matter what your opinion is of Maria Sharapova, it’s hard to ignore that her comeback is a huge boost to the game—just one look at Wednesday’s sold-out crowd in Stuttgart confirmed that. After 15 months away, the Russian took out Roberta Vinci, 7-5, 6-3, on Wednesday night and then powered past Ekaterina Makarova, 7-5, 6-1, on Thursday.
“It’s a journey,” Sharapova said on Wednesday. “It starts today—actually it started for me a while ago—but officially today … I’m looking forward to playing as many matches as I can.”
Love her or hate her, the facts don’t lie. Sharapova was the highest-earning female athlete on the planet for 11 years, picking up million-dollar sponsorships and endorsements, winning five majors, reaching No. 1 and most importantly, amassing incredible popularity.
Her legions of fans are so dedicated that a near-complete fall from grace for a failed drug test has not tainted their love.
It’s tempting to write her off as a cheater—like her former idolizer, Eugenie Bouchard, has done—and think that she shouldn’t be helped in her comeback, no matter who she is.
Yet at the same time, you can’t ignore how much her success has done for the sport and how messy and confusing the meldonium-fueled mishap has been. At the end of the day (or 15 months), it’s just as temping to throw up your hands and admit that the game needs her.
Even Vinci thinks so—at least to some degree.
"She is a great player and I have nothing against her,” Vinci said on Monday. “She paid for her mistakes. She can return to play, but without any wild cards, without any help ... I know [Sharapova] is important for the tennis, for the WTA, for everything. She is a great person, a great player, a great champion, but this is my opinion."
Former No. 1 Andy Roddick certainly believes that the wild cards are going to the right player.
“It seems a little naïve to me,” he said. “I have a hard time having people trying to play judge and jury after time has been served … Do I think she deserves a wild card? Sure. I think the wild card should go to the people who generate the most interest.”
The list of players who disagree with how she’s returning is lengthy. No matter where your opinion sits on if she intentionally doped, and if the International Tennis Federation handled her case correctly, it doesn’t really matter anymore. Her tennis is what matters most now, and that’s the way she has wanted things to be since picking up the sport as a child in Siberia.
"It's not my job to think if [the criticism] is personal or not,” Sharapova said. “Words and quotes and articles is not what matters in life, and I learned that very well in the past year. At the end of the day, all that matters is what's on the court, and that's why I'm here."
She’s returning to a very different WTA tour. Last week, Serena Williams announced her surprising pregnancy news—coincidentally—on Sharapova’s 30th birthday. Birthday gift jokes were aplenty, but can the news really be considered a gift?
No one doubts that Sharapova would clamor at a chance to end her 18-match losing streak to the world No. 1, and has had many nightmares about the fact that her last professional match could have been a quarterfinal loss to Williams at the 2016 Australian Open.
Fifteen months away from the wear and tear of the tour will be a blessing in disguise for Sharapova’s longevity, and could even boost her already tough-as-nails mental stamina. She was born to compete, and appears hungrier than ever.
“This is what I’ve done for so long,” Sharapova said. “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 the best—when I forget about everything and just be me, and compete.”
With Williams out for at least the rest of 2017; Victoria Azarenka returning in Stanford after the birth of her first child; Petra Kvitova still sidelined with a severe hand injury; and players like Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep and Angelique Kerber unable to deliver stable results, the WTA tour is all but begging for fresh star power.
It won’t be easy for Sharapova to reclaim her status as the “it girl,” partly because her colleagues are mixed on their opinions about her, and partly because she’s unranked. To earn her place in the ranking system again, she needs to earn points in three events (which she’s all but guaranteed to do, thanks to wild cards into Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome).
If she were to lose in the Stuttgart quarterfinals, she’d walk away with 100 points. Madrid and Rome both award points for first-round losers, so worst-case scenario she’ll be ranked in the 300s going into the French Open. On the flip side, were she to sweep all three titles, she’d be ranked just inside the Top 20.
Just like that.
The majors have been mostly silent on whether they will award Sharapova a wild card, with early word from Paris indicating that she may find herself in the qualifying draw.
Maybe wild cards seem an unfair reward for someone who has just been penalized for cheating, but why take the hard route playing ITF Pro Circuit qualifying draws in Tunisia when there’s opportunities for points like that right in front of you?
"I think I'd be prepared to play in the juniors [of a Slam], if I had to," she said. "I think everyone in this room knows what a competitor I am, that I never take anything for granted, and if I get the opportunity to be in the draw, then I will take it."
The Russian is famous for her borderline selfish focus and determination, and she’s just as famous for taking advantage of the opportunities that are in front of her.
This is a girl who arrived at Nick Bollettieri’s doorstep as an uninvited 7-year-old, and 10 years later won Wimbledon in just her second appearance. Back then, it was just her and her father against the world, and that war-like mentality hasn’t gone away. She’s going to do what she thinks is best for her career, without concerning herself with what her peers—or, more importantly, what you—think.