When the clock struck midnight here, Maria Sharapova’s interminable wait was finally over. An outcast no more, the gates to the world of tennis were open to her again and nobody could cross her name off the list. Nine hours and 15 minutes later, Sharapova strode purposefully on court, ignoring the cameras and journalists, and briefly it was possible to fall into the trap of thinking that this was just business as usual.
But it was no ordinary occasion. Rarely, if ever, had there been this much interest in a practice hit before a first-round match at a tournament where players tune up on clay before the French Open next month. One of the sport’s most famous figures, and by far its most controversial, was back in the sceptical public eye after the rancour that followed her stunning revelation of a failed drug test last year and the troubling sense that even now she feels no shame about meldonium being found in her system.
Perhaps that apparent shortage of remorse can be explained by Sharapova’s knowing awareness of her undiminished power. For longer than she would care to remember, the Russian’s reputation has been dragged through the mud. In the eyes of most of her peers, she will always be a pariah, but there are others who still regard her as Princess Maria and fall obligingly at her feet whenever she walks on a court.
A few of those people were in the Centre Court crowd at the Porsche Arena on Wednesday night, when Sharapova played in a competitive setting for the first time in 15 months. There were supportive signs in the stands, a few Russian flags, and noticeable cheers instead of jeers as Sharapova prepared to face the awkward Roberta Vinci and start her quest for passage into the grand slams. A 7-5, 6-3 victory against the world No36, who is no ally of hers, secured a match against Ekaterina Makarova on Thursday, the dangerous Russian left-hander. There was even some whooping.
Yet any argument that Sharapova’s return from the wilderness is as a warming dose of nostalgia is pure bunkum. To put her wild-card entry into the Stuttgart Open into context, the star who dazzled as a 17-year-old champion at Wimbledon in 2004 trained in a small local club on Tuesday. Her ban forced her to keep her distance, so imagine the frostiness when the ice queen entered the locker room in the morning. Sharapova is unlikely to care, however, for making friends has never been her priority.
Her chief nemesis is Serena Williams, but the news that the pregnant world No1 will miss at least the next three grand slam tournaments leaves a vacuum for Sharapova to fill in a sport lacking glamour. Sharapova possesses intimidating commercial appeal as the owner of five majors, which is why tournament organisers are embracing her. Along with an immediate route back in Stuttgart, where, by happy coincidence, the tournament bears the name of one of her many sponsors, the 30-year-old has been granted wild cards in Madrid and Rome.
Even without a ranking, her ultimate goal is admission to Roland Garros. A decision will be made on 15 May and the former French Open champion might have to settle for a place in qualifying. Wimbledon, too, will discuss her case in the coming weeks.
If Sharapova overcomes lingering rust and lets her play do the talking, she will be hard to resist. If she reaches Sunday’s final she will qualify for the preliminary tournament at Roland Garros so she will be rightly encouraged by her strong performance against Vinci. The piercing grunt has not gone away; nor have those ferocious competitive instincts or her natural talent. Sharapova recovered from early nerves, a double-fault and the loss of her first service game to wear Vinci down. She tore into a backhand with her final shot, then pumped her fists, beamed a winning smile and accepted the respectful applause with a delighted wave.
Her emotional response was understandable, but many of her rivals remain unhappy about the preferential treatment given to her by tournament organisers. They argue that she should work her way up from the bottom of the pile. It is hard not to sympathise.
Caroline Wozniacki called her presence in Stuttgart disrespectful. Agnieszka Radwanska has not held back. Eugenie Bouchard was caustic. “She’s a cheater and I don’t think a cheater should be allowed to play that sport again,” the Canadian saidon Wednesday. Jibes have flown in both directions. Max Eisenbud, Sharapova’s agent, has claimed that “journeymen players” like Radwanska and Wozniacki spy a last chance to win a major by keeping the Russian down.
That kind of provocation explains Sharapova’s image dilemma: she has done her time, but where is the contrition? Backed by her sponsors, she has continued to make millions during her time away. She still has her adoring fans and the myopia can be startling. You could be forgiven for thinking that this was a romantic return from injury.
Yet there has been no tragedy, whatever the Sharapologists say. She has served a drugs ban, reduced from two years to 15 months on appeal. Now she is back and she has taken the tentative steps on the journey to Paris, where she would be a contender for the crown. Yet the path to true redemption feels far more treacherous.