Maria Sharapova had a two-year ban for failing a doping test at the Australian Open in January reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Tuesday, leaving her open to return to the WTA Tour on April 26, but what does the future hold for the former world number one?
Sharapova could make her comeback in Madrid, the annual WTA Premier clay court tournament taking place at the start of May, with a view to gearing up for the second Grand Slam of the year at Roland Garros a few weeks later. At this stage it looks improbable that she will be guaranteed direct entry even to the 128-player field at the French Open, with the highest-ranked 110 players automatically going into the main draw; Sharapova is currently ranked 95 in the world and will not benefit from a protected ranking, which is given to players who have suffered long-term injuries. The comeback trail may be rockier than she would like.
Given her marketability as one of the world’s most recognizable athletes though, the five-times Grand Slam winner will have no shortage of wildcard offers. In the unlikely event she is not granted one in Paris, Sharapova could face the ignominy of going through the qualifiers.
A bigger question mark hangs over Sharapova’s continued ability to compete at the top level of the women’s game after almost a year and a half on the sidelines. The Russian will be 30 a week before her ban concludes and has struggled for years with a recurring shoulder problem and was troubled in 2015 with leg and arm injuries. She had been making another comeback at the 2016 Australian Open, where she lost to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, after missing much of the second half of the previous season.
Last major win at 2014 Roland Garros
Sharapova’s last Grand Slam success came at the 2014 French Open on clay, her least favourite surface, and she reached just one major final in 2015 as new contenders such as Garbiñe Muguruza emerged and some older hands enjoyed a late bloom, including current world number one Angelique Kerber, who beat Sharapova in the fourth round at Wimbledon the same year and reached three of the four major finals this season, winning in Australia and Flushing Meadows.
Sharapova will represent a significant target for players ranging from the top 10 to the outer reaches of the rankings. How she reacts to some potential early round losses as she seeks match fitness and how she is received in the locker room – where she has never been terribly popular in the first place – after serving her ban will go some way to determining whether Sharapova ever returns to the top of the game.
After her layoff though, Sharapova will be content just to get into the swing of the Tour again. "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," the 29-year-old said in a message to fans on social media. "Tennis is my passion and I have missed it. I am counting the days until I can return to the court."
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