How will Maria Sharapova fare when she returns to the tour in Stuttgart in just under four weeks’ time?
Not even Sharapova herself can tell you. But for an educated guess, let’s ask world No 20 Barbora Strycova, who made her own comeback from a doping ban at the same tournament in 2013.
Both women trained like marines throughout their enforced absences – even if Strycova’s six-month ban, the result of consuming a dubious weight-loss supplement, was considerably shorter than Sharapova’s 15 months.
Even so, Strycova’s chief memory of her opening match, against Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the first round of the Stuttgart qualifying event, is that “I couldn’t walk for three days afterwards”. “Oh my God, it’s so different!” added Strycova, a diminutive but stylish player who turned 31 last week.
“You can train six hours per day but you will never train like what you give during a real match. There is the nerves, the thoughts, the body is working differently to practice. I was preparing for nine weeks and I was so sore.”
Strycova is unlikely to be relaying her experiences to Sharapova in person, for she has no memory of speaking to her before. “I’m not her friend,” she said. “I don’t think anyone is her friend on the tour. She doesn’t have [friends], I don’t think, because she doesn’t talk to anybody.”
Still, like many of the players who have served bans – think of Marin Cilic, who won the US Open less than a year after completing a four-month sentence of his own – Strycova’s misfortune may have proved beneficial in the long run.
Before her offence, she was a fringe member of the top 100. Since it, she has climbed to a high point of No 16, while twice lifting the Fed Cup as a member of the all-conquering Czech team. “Of course at the beginning I was a little bit depressed with the way it happened,” recalls Strycova, who ingested the banned stimulant sibutramine through a supplement called Acai Berry Thin.
“For two months I was crying at home, thinking ‘It’s not fair.’ Then I was like, ‘OK, let’s do it.’ I was training every day and very hard. “I was also living a regular life, doing stuff like most people do. I was going to the post office, washing my clothes. It’s crazy to say, but on the tour, we have everything prepared and we are like a circus going to different countries. It’s not real so it was good for me to see something different.
“I was so happy when I finally got on the court. I lost my ranking – I was 230 or something – so after losing in qualifying at Stuttgart, which is one of the best tournaments on tour, I had to play a $25,000 event [in Wiesbaden some 100 miles away], which is so different. But I like challenges. And this was a huge challenge. By the end of the year I was 90 in the world.
“When I came back, I didn’t have anybody who would look at me different. But maybe I found out who is really my friend and who is not.”
Having scrapped her way up from the bottom, Strycova feels uncomfortable about the way Sharapova will be fast-tracked into the leading tournaments via wild cards.
Her biggest beef, though, is with the Women’s Tennis Association’s decision to allow Sharapova to play Stuttgart, even though the ban only elapses midway through the week.
WTA chief executive Steve Simon insisted last week that he is following the rules, yet this situation has never arisen before, so it is more a question of interpretation than legalistic clarity. It’s worth noting, however, that when teenagers turn 14 – the minimum age for WTA competition – that age is calculated on the first day of an event rather than midway through.
“I think it’s not OK,” says Strycova. “I think when you do something like this you have to be punished. But she is Maria and what can you do? I will not get p----- off about it. I’m a bit shocked actually with what is happening at the tournament in Stuttgart but I can’t change it so I won’t think about it.
“Of course it would have been nice to have wild cards when I came back but I’m not Sharapova. Nothing changed for her. She can play the same tournaments as me.
“I don’t have anything against her, and if I play her I will prepare the same – I won’t feel pushed to win any more than I normally do. That’s her problem; she did it; this is her career. What I don’t like is that she can play Wednesday, whereas we are coming from the Fed Cup and we have to play on Tuesday. It’s nothing against her, but for me it is against the rules.”