Maria Sharapova ready for frosty reception from the locker room as she makes long-awaited return

Simon Briggs
The Telegraph
Maria Sharapova makes her comeback on Wednesday - PA
Maria Sharapova makes her comeback on Wednesday - PA

The print-out arrived at around 4pm on Tuesday. Just a standard order of play, but with one notable detail. There in the middle: “Not before 6.30pm (WC) Maria SHARAPOVA (RUS) v Roberta VINCI (ITA)”.

Yes, the 15-month wait is over. Maria Sharapova will play tour-level tennis on Wednesday evening in Stuttgart. As her supporters emphasise, she has served her sentence, and hardly a lenient one. Even so, those two letters “WC” continue to cause unrest.

By asking for – and being granted – wild cards here in Stuttgart, and then in both Madrid and Rome, Sharapova has tilted the court of locker-room opinion against herself. The trouble is, every spot that Sharapova occupies means that someone else misses out. Here in Stuttgart, the unfortunate woman is Julia Goerges, the German No. 2.

“I am really said for Julia because she won the tournament already and she is a German,” said the top seed and world No. 2 Angelique Kerber on Tuesday. “So of course I was wishing that she would get the wild card.” Vinci, the woman on the other side of the net for Wednesday’s big occasion, is understood to feel similar sympathy for her fellow Italian Francesca Schiavone, who seems destined to play the fall guy in Rome.

For a woman with an entourage of managers and publicists, Sharapova has hardly delivered a Dale Carnegie-style demonstration of how to win friends and influence people. Back in March of last year, the initial response from the tennis world was surprisingly positive. American pros Madison Keys and Jamie Hampton referred to her “honest mistake”, while even Serena Williams, a bitter rival, saluted Sharapova’s “courage” in making the announcement herself.

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Just over a year later, Sharapova’s use of meldonium is no longer the primary issue. But a new sense of discontent has grown up around the red-carpet ride provided by those wild cards. The same goes for Sharapova’s presence in a main draw which began on Monday, two days before her ban elapsed.

You can see why it happened. Stuttgart’s full title is the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, and Porsche is one of Sharapova’s main sponsors. In a sport that fights for every scrap of commercial visibility, the attraction was too good to refuse.

Unfortunately, the small print of the ban meant that Sharapova was not allowed onto the site until this morning, and thus had to spend recent days practising at Sportverein Sillenbuch, a private club situated six miles away. The arrangement is so uncomfortable that even Johanna Konta, the publicity-shy British No. 1, referred to it on Tuesday as a “massive grey area”, adding that “this situation has highlighted a lot of things that need clarity.”

And then there was the U-turn performed by Simona Halep, the world No. 5. Six weeks ago, Halep had blithely acknowledged Sharapova’s rights to wild cards on the basis that “she was No. 1 and a champion”. On Tuesday, the same question elicited a very different answer. “For the kids, for the young players, it’s not OK to help players who have been banned for doping with wild cards.”

Could this shift be connected with the recent intemperate outburst from Sharapova’s long-serving agent, Max Eisenbud? On Friday, apparently driven to breaking point by the parade of negative comments, Eisenbud sent an unsolicited message to the American tennis writer Ben Rothenberg.

“All these 'journeyman' players like Radwanska and Wozniacki who have never won a slam and the next generation passing them, they are smart to try to keep Maria out of Paris,” he wrote. “NO Serena [Williams], NO Maria, NO Vika [Azarenka], NO Petra [Kvitova], it's their last chance to win a slam. But they never read the CAS report and they never read paragraph 100 and 101 [in which the panel rules that Sharapova was an accidental doper]. So they have no clue."

For another misstep, we could point to the triumphalist tone struck after CAS reduced the sentence from 24 months to 15. Sharapova’s lawyer John Haggerty called the verdict “a stunning repudiation” of the ITF, while Sharapova herself set off in a determined attempt to occupy the high moral ground. In response, the broadcaster and former world No. 3 Pam Shriver tweeted “Why not just be grateful?”

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Will any of this scepticism bother her on Wednesday, or in the coming weeks? “She is nervous about the reaction to her comeback,” said one source who knows her well, “and how she will be treated.” But as long as the fans greet her warmly, one suspects that she will cope with the standoffishness of her peers. It is not as if she has ever shown much warmth in the opposite direction. 

“For Maria, it’s always been about the competition,” the source continued. “She’s not there to make friends. Her mental strength and focus, they are her pluses. Athletes bring different talents and strengths, and they are hers.

“Away from the court, Maria is a very social, fun person who likes to relax and chill out. On duty, she is the most professional person I’ve ever met, and she is a master of making that switch. As she gets ready for the match, I’m sure she’ll be incredibly nervous but incredibly excited. She has evolved a lot as a person in the last 15 months, realised there is more to life than tennis, and that might help her. I think she’s in a really good place.”

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