By Ros Satar, in Stuttgart
- On Wednesday Maria Sharapova makes her return to the tour after her 15-month suspension for testing positive for Meldonium.
- She faces Roberta Vinci, but the topic has dominated the pre-tournament press conferences
STUTTGART, GERMANY – After initial shock, recriminations, defences, speculation and finally controversial decisions across the board – it all comes to an end on Wednesday evening as Maria Sharapova returns to the tour.
From disbelief to the almost farcical, the last 15 months from Maria Sharapova’s announcement in a room with ‘ugly carpet’ that she had tested positive for meldonium after it was added to WADA’s banned list with little fanfare. Since then haters have had a field day and similarly the party faithful have rallied for their star. The initial sentence was reduced by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to 15 months from its original two years.
However, the matter did not end there as Sharapova mounted an offensive against the International Tennis Federation celebrating the sentence reduction as a vindication of her innocence. We could delve into a depth of history behind improbable defences, more cycles of hate and blind loyalty, but what would be the point. After months of all of this, we arrive at 6:30pm (local time) and Sharapova’s return.
In fact it is far earlier than that – Sharapova will be training early in the morning and we expect that everyone will be in to Snapchat and Instagram the moment to within an inch of its column-inch life (yes, us included – we are not that naïve!).
Top seed Angelique Kerber is aiming to win her third title in a row – a feat only matched by Tracy Austin, Martina Navratilova and of course Sharapova. In fact Kerber stopped the Russian in her tracks as she was going for her fourth win.
She said: “I think it’s a strange situation for everybody because like she can practice tomorrow and then she has a match tomorrow. But in the end I think this is the rule. She already had her suspension. So, we will see how she will play the next weeks. It’s the decision of the tournament and from the rules. This is all I can say.”
Kerber felt in particular that it had been particularly harsh on compatriot Julia Goerges. The former Stuttgart champion had actually been the German heroine after Kerber lost her reverse singles rubber to Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina and it was left to Goerges to help keep Germany in the World Group.
She added: “I think to be honest I’m really sad for Julia because she won the tournament already and she’s a German. So, of course, I was wishing for her that she would get the Wild Card but she didn’t. In the end it’s the decision of the tournament, it’s not my decision. If it was my decision I would give it to her for sure because she played amazing at the weekend and she cannot play here. But in the end it is like it is.”
Next up was Romania’s Simona Halep, whose best here was the semi-final in 2015. Halep had already been put in a difficult position over the weekend after the chaos caused by inappropriate comments of Romanian team captian Ilie Nastase as his verbal outbursts in the Fed Cup World Group II play-off tie resulted in reducing Johanna Konta to tears.
Having dealt with the continuing aftermath, she was asked to turn her thoughts to Sharapova, taking a wider moral standpoint on whether it sets a good example to younger players in terms of being a role model.
“My opinion is that I cannot support what the tournament director did but I also cannot judge. It is his opinion and his decision. But my opinion is that for the kids, for the young players it is not okay it is not okay to promote, to help players, who were banned for doping, with wild cards. But it is not about Maria Sharapova here, it’s about all the players that are found doped.”
Meanwhile elsewhere in the tennis world there are still World No. 1 rankings to be attained, the potential for maiden Slams to be won, and at the forefront of this race is Karolina Pliskova. The languid Czech may be a lot more under the radar than some of the more flamboyant members on the tour, but puts her message across with a fair bit of humour to boot.
“I answered this questions fifty times already but probably you were not there (laughs),” she told one reporter. “Definitely it’s a big thing for this tournament. Not only for this tournament, for all the next tournaments. I have my opinion, I’m not going to say it that much. For the tournament side it’s a big plus. Obviously that Serena is going to be out now I think definitely tennis needs a star like she is. So, I don’t have anything against it.”
For obvious reasons the fandoms bristle with righteous indignation if anyone should have an opinion that brushes against their norm. One such player – Garbiñe Muguruza, has no issue with her comments and she knows that they can often be taken out of context.
She told reporters: “I’ve been very open about this. I gave my opinion. I think it’s good to give an opinion. I feel like sometimes people use my opinion in certain ways for them. So, I want to be clear on that.
“I think that Maria is one of the toughest opponents I ever played. She did what she had to do, all her time, her months and now she’s back which is good. I understand she deserves another chance and I’m happy for that.
“I think it’s a little bit weird in this tournament because I found out that she is not able to be here until Wednesday which is exactly the same day she plays. But actually the tournament starts on Monday, so it’s a little bit like ‘okay, what’s going on here’. Everybody is a little bit tight there. But there is not a lot I can say. I don’t really think about this all the time. I think tomorrow it’s going to be a lot over. So, once when is back she is going to be another player.”
So far so good, but let’s not forget that there was a tennis tournament underway, and while Agnieszka Radwanska has been a semi-finalist in Stuttgart three times, this was not the year for her. Add to that the words of criticism of her and Caroline Wozniacki from Sharapova’s agent Max Eisenbud – and we had a recipe for awkwardness, following her own assertions previously that she was most definitely not in favour of the wildcards being awarded to Sharapova.
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) April 21, 2017
With her return days away, Sharapova’s agent Max Eisenbud decided to break his silence after these comments from Radwanska. Here he goes: pic.twitter.com/WXUVxooeK5
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) April 21, 2017
There is no doubt that an opening round loss hurts, a lot. So Radwanska’s simple rebuttal to the question what her response was to Eisenbud.
“Who is Max? Who is this guy? That is my comment?”
But when it comes to the last word, who better to deliver it than one of the more enduring characters on the tour, Svetlana Kuznetsova. Her resurgence last year to scrape into the last berth of the WTA Finals, was one of the highlights of a busy year.
She knew she was going to be asked. They all did. So let’s leave it to the tour’s funniest straight talker to deliver the punch-line ahead of the show.
“You really read so much about it and everybody is saying their opinion. So, I’m just going to leave it [to] people to talk and Maria to play.”
Of course we know there is more to come. Just this morning The Roland Garros account tweeted that they would make an announcement regading Sharapova’s participation on the 16th May at 7pm (6pm BST).
Concernant Maria Sharapova, l’annonce sera faite le 16 mai à 19h sur Facebook Live #RG17
— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) April 26, 2017
The circus has come to town – it will be staying for the summer until all that is left when cleared away are the marks on the grass where the rides had been.
Until the end of the summer, bring on the popcorn and the candyfloss.
(All Photos: Jimmie 48 Tennis Photography)
Sharapova will make her return to the tour against Roberta Vinci, on Centre Court, not before 6:30pm (5:30pm BST)
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