By Larry Fine
RANCHO MIRAGE, California (Reuters) - Tennis star Maria Sharapova said on Tuesday she is excited about her return to competition next month, feeling vindicated by the reduction of her doping suspension and empowered by her time away.
Russia's former world number one was initially barred for two years after testing positive at the 2016 Australian Open for meldonium, a medication she had been taking for 10 years within the rules, but that was reclassified as a banned drug.
Sharapova vigorously fought to overturn the ban, saying she had not been properly advised of the official change, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport cut the ban to 15 months and said in its ruling it did not believe she was "an intentional doper".
"Although I'm at a stage or age in my career where you're closer to the end than your beginning, you always want to end a chapter in your life on your own terms, in your own voice," Sharapova told the ANA Inspiring Women in Sports conference at Mission Hills.
"That's why I fought so hard for the truth to be out," the five-times grand slam winner said at the programme that included tennis and women's sports pioneer Billie Jean King, Olympic champion gymnast Aly Raisman and 2014 ANA Inspiration champion golfer Lexi Thompson.
Sharapova's ban will end two days after the Stuttgart grand prix starts on April 24. She has been given a wild card by organisers, who scheduled her first match on the Wednesday in her competitive return.
Some players have bristled at what they feel is preferential treatment for draw card Sharapova, who reigned as the highest earning female athlete in the world for 11 years in a row, according to Forbes.
"For me it's not OK and I spoke to some other players and nobody is OK with it, but it's not up to us," world number four Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia told reporters.
"It's not about her, but everyone who was doping should start from zero."
Sharapova said she does not worry about the reception she will receive and is confident in her integrity.
"When you love what you do, and do it with passion and integrity and you work hard, and you work on court number 28 when no one is watching ... then you know what you stand for and you know who you are.
"When I'm out on court 28 and there's no one watching, that's when a lot of my trophies are being won," she said.
Sharapova, who turns 30 on April 19, kept herself busy during her tennis absence.
She took a class at Harvard Business School in global strategic management, spent another 10 days in London studying leadership, interned at an advertising agency, spent a week shadowing NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and a week with Nike designers besides attending to her Sugarpova candy brand.
"I learned that life can be OK without tennis," said Sharapova, who also just finished an autobiography scheduled to be published in September. "It was empowering."
Yet Sharapova is eager to get back on the court.
"I've been training quite hard for the past four months," she said, adding it would likely take some time to pay off. "Practise is never the same as match play.
"(But) I know that my mind and my body still have the motivation to be the best tennis player I can be."
(Editing by Andrew Both)