Maria Sharapova is set to make her controversial return to the courts on Wednesday in Stuttgart after completing a 15-month doping ban, with some players backing the former world number one’s bid to restart her career and others not at all enamoured by what they see as preferential treatment being meted out to the sport’s most marketable athlete.
Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, a widely available prescription treatment in eastern Europe and Russia used to increase blood flow in patients with heart problems and angina, at the 2016 Australian Open and explained that she had been taking the drug, marketed as mildronate in Russia, to treat a series of health issues: I was getting sick very often and I had a deficiency in magnesium and a family history of diabetes, and there were signs of diabetes. That is one of the medications, along with others, that I received,” she said after learning that meldonium had been placed on the WADA list of banned substances for 2016.
The five-times Grand Slam winner was initially banned for two years, but this was reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the Lausanne-based tribunal accepting Sharapova’s admission that she had failed to read an email sent by the ITF detailing updates to the list of banned substances for 2016, which included meldonium.
Her ban now served, Sharapova is free to return to action but plenty of voices in tennis are bristling at the manner in which she will do so. Sharapova’s ban ends on April 26 and she will be on court the same day after being handed a wildcard by the Stuttgart tournament organisers – who share a sponsor with Sharapova in Porsche.
"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," said Agnieszka Radwanska, who was projected to meet Sharapova in the second round but was beaten by Ekatarina Makarova, who will presumably have a more sympathetic view towards her compatriot.
Players on the tour have also been irked by the decision to hand Sharapova wildcards into the main draw at Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome. Her opponent on Wednesday, Roberta Vinci, defended Sharapova’s right to return but suggested she should do so from the bottom rung, an opinion shared by Dominika Cibulkova, who withdrew from the Stuttgart field with injury: "It's not about her, but everyone who was doping should start from zero," said the Slovakian.
However, former world number one Victoria Azarenka described Sharapova's return as "good for tennis."
French Open decision due on May 16
Her appearance in Stuttgart is far from universally popular but one man who may be relieved is French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli, tasked with deciding whether Sharapova will be awarded a wildcard into the main draw of the French Open. Guidicelli is to announce the federation’s decision on May 16 but could be spared a thorny issue if Sharapova reaches the final in Stuttgart, which would give the currently unranked Russian enough ranking points to contest the qualifying tournament at Roland Garros, a scenario that could be completed in Madrid or Rome before the clay Grand Slam.
In the meantime, the eyes of the tennis world will be on Stuttgart and Vinci, the world number 36 who reached a career high of seven less than a year ago and was a US Open finalist in 2015. At 30 Sharapova is entering the twilight zone for tennis players and the effects of her 15-month layoff have yet to be fully gauged. The Italian will be keen to put her to the test, with many on the WTA tour behind every swipe of Vinci’s racket.