Defiance has been the keynote of Maria Sharapova’s response to her doping ban, and it was defiance that characterised her dealings with the media on Wednesday night, after she had celebrated her return to the Tour with a 7-5, 6-3 victory.
In a frosty press conference, Sharapova refused to distance herself from the words of her manager Max Eisenbud, who last week accused “‘journeyman’ players like [Agnieszka] Radwanska and [Caroline] Wozniacki” of trying to keep her out of the French Open for their own ends.
“I can’t control my manager’s words,” Sharapova replied, when asked if she agreed with Eisenbud’s assessment. “He has been watching everybody’s comments for the past 15 months and he is entitled to his opinion.”
On the court, Sharapova showed signs of rust in the early stages, but leant heavily on an improved service action – which helped her deliver 11 aces in the match – to claim a straight-sets win over Roberta Vinci.
There were clearly nerves at the outset, judging by the way she gave up a 2-0 lead in the first set, and the intensity of her fist-pumping celebration after the job had been completed. But another test then awaited her off the court as she faced an open-floor media event – with no vetting of questions – for the first time since last year’s Australian Open.
Sharapova remained poised and polished, only once groaning when a reporter from The Sun identified himself and joking: “I don’t think The Sun has ever been in Stuttgart have they?” But she had no intention of displaying regret or contrition. “It’s not my job to take [criticism] whether it’s personal or not,” she said. “Words, quotes and articles is not what matters in life and I’ve learnt that very well in the past year.”
On the specific medical issue of meldonium – which she claims was prescribed to her because of cardiac irregularities and a family history of diabetes – Sharapova declined to reveal whether she had found a permitted alternative. “That information is between myself, the Women’s Tennis Association and the orthopaedic doctor I’m working with,” she replied.
But Sharapova did insist that she was not bitter about the time she had spent out of the game. “I am not an individual who is angry,” she said. “I was very much present in my life. I was studying, I was working, I was forming friendships. As a woman, as a 29-year-old, it was very liberating.
“I can’t control what people say. The only thing I can control is what I do out there. I’m always prepared to walk the walk. I’ve done that by winning five grand slams and being No 1 in the world.”
The recent ill-feeling about Sharapova’s return has not revolved around the doping test itself but the wild cards she has received from Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome. The French Tennis Federation has yet to reveal whether it will offer an invitation to Roland Garros, but an announcement is to be broadcast via Facebook Live on May 16.
“I’ve been offered wild cards from the tournament directors and I’m accepting them to be able to compete in the draw,” Sharapova said. “I’m coming with no ranking and I’m not getting a wild card to receive a trophy or a golden platter. I have to get through the matches and I still have to win them. ”
Would Sharapova be prepared to enter the qualifying tournament at the French Open – and if necessary at Wimbledon too? “I think I’d be prepared to play in the juniors if I had to,” she replied. “Everyone knows what a competitor I am.”
It was somehow typical of this murky saga that Sharapova’s successful return should coincide with the most critical assessment we have heard from any of her peers. In an online interview from the Istanbul Cup, Eugenie Bouchard suggested that Sharapova should not be allowed to return to the sport at all.
“I don’t think it’s right,” Bouchard said, when asked about Sharapova’s comeback. “She’s a cheater and I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again. It’s so unfair to all the other players who do it the right way and are true.
“I think from the WTA it sends the wrong message to young kids: ‘cheat and we’ll welcome you back with open arms’. I don’t think that’s right and she’s definitely not someone I can say I look up to anymore because it’s definitely ruined it for me a little bit.”
Bouchard can look forward to protests and perhaps even legal letters, as the Court of Arbitration for Sport specifically ruled that Sharapova’s doping was inadvertent – and so it is false to label Sharapova a ‘cheater’. Still, Bouchard gives the impression that she is as unconcerned about popularity in the locker-room as Sharapova herself, and she will not be easily intimidated.
After all the debate, Sharapova will play her fellow Russian and meldonium sympathiser Ekaterina Makarova on Thursday. As we move into the second round, Sharapova and her grunts are once again part of the sights and sounds of the tour. And while the crowd at the Porsche-Arena offered only muted support on Wednesday, the regular WTA events are in desperate need of her star quality. The absence of grand-slam champions Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova only enhances her appeal.
Meanwhile Johanna Konta said she was happy to be “getting back to normality” on Wednesday after recording an opening-round win over Naomi Osaka. She was referring to her switch from the wild frontier that was Constanta for the Fed Cup tie against Romania to the much more respectful environment of the Porsche-Arena, where she won 7-6, 3-6, 6-1.
Sharapova will now face Ekaterina Makarova in the second round, after her fellow Russian knocked out Agnieszka Radwanska on Tuesday.
Sharapova showed signs of rust in the first couple of games this evening, but was dominant thereafter and served beautifully, racking up 11 aces along the way.
The win gives Sharapova 55 points and almost takes her back into the world's top 500. Like it or not, the comeback has begun.
How did it feel as you waited to com back onto court?"It's the best feeling in the world, those first few seconds before you enter the arena. And it's been a stage of mine since I was a young girl, and to know I'd be walking back was pretty special. I've been waiting for this moment for a long time."
How much time off from tennis did you take during your break? "Quite a lot, the most since I had shoulder surgerya few years ago. I didn't know when I'd be back and I wanted to do other things, to learn and to explore. I went to school for a little bit, I worked a little bit and I was growing my business. I had a pretty normal life for a while.
"I kept in shape but I put the racket away for a bit and it really invigorated me for when I came back in January and started training."
Did you pick up other interests while you were away? "One of my problems was I started developing too many interests and there are so many things my main job has given me that I've been able to learn from and grow. I've grown as a person in my life, and I felt I really had to step up and do that."
Did it take a while to get back into the swing of things today? "When I'm on the court, even though I was rusty, this is what I've done for so long and when you're in the moment you compete and I'm a competitor by nature even when things are not working, that's when I'm at my best."
What of your next opponent, fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova? "She's a leftie, and no matter who I play it's important for me. To play matches, it's a journey that starts today and I'm looking forward to playing as many matches as possible."
Game, set and match! Sharapova defeats Vinci 7-5, 6-3
Sharapova is not messing around, and she bludgeons her way to a 0-40 lead and three match points. She only needs one, as Vinci nets a backhand.
Big celebrations from Sharapova, a cursory handshake with Vinci, and warm applause from the crowd. She's back.
Sharapova 7-5, 5-3 Vinci* (*denotes next server)
Emphasising how well she has served today, Sharapova produces a second serve ace to kick the game off. Beautiful disguise on that, carving away out wide to the Vinci forehand on the deuce court and tickling the sideline. It sets her up for a love hold, wrapped up with an 11th ace, and Vinci will now serve to stay in the match.
Sharapova* 7-5, 4-3 Vinci (*denotes next server)
It's looked at times as if Sharapova's never been away, and she pummels a forehand winner up the line to go up 15-30. Vinci works her way back to 40-30, but we're back at deuce when she sends a forehand wide. Eventually though the Italian does hold, as Sharapova makes a mess of a drop shot.
Apart from a few rusty errors @MariaSharapova looks like she's never been away - leads set and 4-3 against Vinci in first match since ban— Annabel Croft (@Annabel_Croft) April 26, 2017
Sharapova 7-5, 4-2 Vinci* (*denotes next server)
Sharapova really is serving beautifully this match, with nine aces and a first serve points won percentage of 80 per cent. She holds to 15 here, and keeps the pressure firmly on her opponent.
Sharapova* 7-5, 3-2 Vinci (*denotes next server)
Vinci's best service game in a long while, and she holds to 15 when Sharapova nets a forehand.
Sharapova 7-5, 3-1 Vinci* (*denotes next server)
Vinci has got her coach Francesco Cina on court at the change of ends again, and it's another animated discussion.
The Italiantastic gesturing in this Roberta Vinci coaching timeout is everything you would dream for and more. Got me real excited for Rome.— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) April 26, 2017
That was not on-court coaching. That was on-court debating— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) April 26, 2017
Sharapova though keeps her focus and holds to 15 with minimum of fuss. She's three games away from a place in the second round.
Sharapova* 7-5, 2-1 Vinci (*denotes next server)
Boy did she need that, Vinci ends the run of five games against her with a hold to 30. A couple of volleys from the double specialist see her eke the game out from down 15-30.
Sharapova 7-5, 2-0 Vinci* (*denotes next server) - Sharapova saves three break points and holds!
A bit better from Vinci this game, as she draws a couple of errors from her opponent to force deuce. The Italian then forces a break point with a crunched forehand return, but Sharapova saves it with a simple volley after Vinci didn't do enough with her first passing shot. Vinci is handed a second break point when Sharapova double faults, but she is furious with herself after she makes a mess of a regulation backhand return. She forces another break point shortly after, but Sharapova saves it with a seventh ace. Clutch serving from the Russian, and she rattles off the next couple of points to complete the hold. Five straight games for Sharapova.
Meanwhile in Istanbul, Eugenie Bouchard has called Sharapova 'a cheater' and says dopers should be banned for life. Crikey, this is pretty punch stuff.
Sharapova* 7-5, 1-0 Vinci (*denotes next server) - Sharapova breaks
Sharapova deserved that first set, she was applying a huge amount of pressure on her opponent and looked like breaking in pretty much every Vinci service game. She also hit 24 winners to just six from Vinci. It'll be interesting to see whether she runs away with this set, or whether she'll start to feel it physically after 15 months out and a first set that lasted just under an hour.
It looks more like it'll be the former as Sharapova wins her fourth game in a row with a break in the first game of the second set. She is absolutely pulverising the Vinci second serve, especially on the forehand side.
Sharapova 7-5 Vinci* (*denotes next server) - First set Sharapova
Tense first couple of points, as Vinci chooses the wrong option with a forehand pass to gift Sharapova a volley putaway for 15-0, before Sharapova nets a forehand to make it 15-15. Vinci then slams a forehand return winner away for 15-30, but a sixth ace has us back at 30-30. A Vinci forehand then flies long, and Sharapova has a set point at 40-30. She can't take it though, as she pushes a backhand wide. The Russian gets a second chance when Vinci miscues a forehand return, and she takes it thanks to a net cord that dies on Vinci.
Game and first set Sharapova, seven games to five.
Sharapova* 6-5 Vinci (*denotes next server) - Sharapova breaks!
Yet again, Vinci is being bullied on her own service game and for the third service game in succession she is down break point. And this time Sharapova takes the chance, burying a backhand return winner down the line at 30-40. She'll now serve for the opening set.
Sharapova 5-5 Vinci* (*denotes next server)
This would be a real ambush if Vinci could nick the set here on Sharapova's serve, given how the Russian has had the better of things in the last few games.
One tactic that is working well for Vinci is getting Sharapova on the run, because the wildcard has looked a little rusty when being forced to chase down drop shots. Doing so gets Vinci to 0-15, but an ace and a backhand winner gives Sharapova a 30-15 lead. Another ace and a missed Vinci backhand follow, and Sharapova holds comfortably again.
Sharapova* 4-5 Vinci (*denotes next server) - Vinci saves a break point and holds
While Sharapova is holding with ease, Vinci is being made to work on every one of her service games. All but her opening service game have gone to deuce, and that's the case again here. Vinci has two game points at 40-30 and then advantage, but on both occasions Sharapova bludgeons her way to winning the point and remains in the game. The Italian then forces a third game point, but double faults - no doubt caused in part by the way Sharapova is demolishing her second serve. Sharapova seizes the initiative to force a break point, but she can't take it as she sends a backhand long. Vinci then has another game point, but Sharapova saves it with a crosscourt backhand winner. Finally though the Italian does hold, as Sharapova nets a forehand return. Sharapova will now serve to stay in the first set.
Sharapova 4-4 Vinci* (*denotes next server)
Vinci has her coach Francesco Cina on court at the change of ends, and they're having a very animated discussion. It's in Italian so I can't really understand it, but it looks from the gesticulating as though Cina is advising her to make more use of the sliced backhand.
Whatever is said makes little difference as Vinci can't lay a glove on Sharapova this game, with the Russian holding to love thanks to two aces and some lovely serving.
Sharapova* 3-4 Vinci (*denotes next server) - Vinci saves a break point and holds
Shot of the match so far from Sharapova, who shows wonderful feel and disguise to feather a drop shot onto the sideline for 15-15. She backs it up with yet another forehand return winner to make it 30-30, and forces a break point at 30-40 when a backtracking Vinci sends a backhand long. Credit the Italian though, as she flicks away a forehand winner to save it and get us back to deuce. And Vinci clings on to hold again when Sharapova makes a couple of forehand errors.
It'll be a big surprise if the quality of this match is any good... not a criticism, just the occasion, match up and rustiness to consider— Naomi Cavaday (@naomicavaday) April 26, 2017
Sharapova 3-3 Vinci* (*denotes next server)
Sharapova is not going for a huge amount on her serve but she's keeping a high percentage of 75 per cent, and that's allowing her to dictate the points. A first ace of the match at 40-15 secures another easy hold.
Sharapova* 2-3 Vinci (*denotes next server)
It's all on Sharapova's racket at the moment - she's either crunching winners or spraying errors. Vinci doesn't really have the power to hit through her opponent, and so she's largely employing slice and awkwardly placed groundtsrokes as we expected. Realising though that she needs to be a bit more aggressive, Vinci ups the ante on the forehand side to move up to 40-30, before Sharapova responds with another brutal forehand return winner for deuce. The Vinci second serve is getting absolutely torn to pieces - she's won just two points from 11 when she misses with the first delivery. But after another deuce, Vinci does eventually hold on, helped by a clever body serve when up advantage. You feel she'll need to employ that tactic if she's to have a chance of winning this match. Upping the first serve percentage from its current mark of 58 per cent would also be a huge help.
Sharapova 2-2 Vinci* (*denotes next server)
Ooh, apparently Sharapova pointed to the wrong mark on the point I mentioned from the previous game when Vinci's lob was adjudged to be just long. That's a bit naughty if so. Either way, Sharapova seems to have found her stride and holds comfortably to 15 when Vinci sends a backhand long.
Sharapova* 1-2 Vinci (*denotes next server) - Sharapova breaks back!
Sharapova is finding her range this game, as she races to a 15-40 lead thanks to an inside-out forehand winner and a backhand return winner crosscourt. The Russian can't take either break point as she makes forehand errors, but a Vinci double fault gives Sharapova a third break back point. Again though she pushes a forehand long and we're back to deuce. Vinci then misses two game point chances, and finds herself down break point when an attempted lob is adjudged to be long. There was millimetres in that. In any case, Vinci then saves what was a fourth break point with some aggressive hitting on the forehand side. Finally though Sharapova does break back when she cracks a couple of forehand winners. Big cheers for both players, sounds like a pretty even split of crowd support.
Sharapova 0-2 Vinci* (*denotes next server) - Vinci breaks!
No matter how much Sharapova has practised, there are few players she could have warmed up against who would be a like for like for Vinci. The Italian plays a beguiling game, full of slice and angle, and it helps her to a 0-15 when Sharapova is flummoxed into miscuing a backhand. Sharapova then double faults for 0-30, and sends a forehand long for 0-40 and three break points. Vinci messes up the first one with a duffed drop shot, and Sharapova saves the second with a steered backhand winner up the line. But the Russian goes long with a forehand on the third one, and Vinci has an early break.
Sharapova* 0-1 Vinci (*denotes next server)
Sharapova thwacks away a forehand return winner to make it 15-15, but otherwise it's plain sailing for Vinci who holds to 15 thanks to a few errors from the Russian.
Roberta Vinci about to start playing a Russian wildcard— Christopher Clarey (@christophclarey) April 26, 2017
Vinci, aged 34 and ranked 36, will serve first. Here we go...
Vinci wins the toss
And elects to serve. The players are now going through their warm-ups, and a reminder that in their two previous matches Vinci has won a grand total of four games.
Maria Sharapova walks onto court to warm applause from the Stuttgart crowd for her first match in 15 months... pic.twitter.com/vvUL0UXbh9— Stuart Fraser (@stu_fraser) April 26, 2017
Players on court
Moody red lighting, and Sharapova is back. No change on her facial expression, it sounds like a pretty muted but warmish crowd reaction as the players come out.
Some other tennis news to bring you
Andy Murray received a walkover into the Barcelona third round earlier today when his opponent Bernard Tomic withdrew with a back injury.
Rafael Nadal has also advanced, he's just beaten Rogerio Dutra Silva 6-2, 6-1.
Sharapova is a three-time winner in Stuttgart and a five-time grand slam champion, and her opponent Vinci has a rich pedigree as well. She's won all four doubles grand slams, and reached that US Open final two years ago when she beat Serena in the semi.
An understated reception for Maria...
Sorry for the short video. Sharapova started to make selfies and sign autographs 20-30 seconds earlier. pic.twitter.com/3aLZYkFCkX— Diego Barbiani (@Diego_Barbiani) April 26, 2017
What Vinci said about the Sharapova wildcard
“I don’t agree about the wild card here, and about the wild card in Rome and the other tournaments, I think she [Sharapova] is a great player, person. She made her mistakes, for sure, but she paid and she can return to play but without any wild cards, any help, but just to play.
“And, for me, probably she would play two or three tournaments and be in the top 30, for sure. I don’t want to think right now about the wild cards. I’m just staying focused as I have to play against her.”
Head to head
I'll level with you, the omens for Vinci are not good for this match. She and Sharapova have met twice before, with the Russian winning 6-2. 6-1 in Indian Wells five years ago and 6-0, 6-1 at the US Open in 2007.
It's perhaps for that reason that Sharapova is the overwhelming favourite with the bookies - she's 4/11 to Vinci's 21/10.
Happy Maria Sharapova day! Yes, after 15 months serving a doping suspension for the banned substance Meldonium, the five-time grand slam champion is back.
A heart-warming comeback story to go alongside those of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal right? Well, maybe not.
The rest of the locker room is not too happy about Sharapova being given a wildcard here, especially given that the event started on Monday and her ban did not expire until today. As a consequence Sharapova could not set foot on the tournament premises, even to practise or pick up her accreditation until this morning, and many of her peers feel the tournament has bent over backwards to accommodate her by delaying her first-round match rather than sending out a strong message about doping.
In any case, here she is, and it will be fascinating to see how the crowd responds to her and how Sharapova performs after so long out. On the first point, Sharapova said she expected a mixed response from the crowd, but I suspect there'll be a lot of love from a set of supporters that have three times cheered her on to the title here. I dare say the response might be a little different were she playing in the UK.
On the point about well she will perform, the various spies who saw her training today said she is hitting the ball ferociously well, and looks in excellent nick. That said, it was fascinating to hear Barbora Strycova telling The Telegraph last month that when she served a doping ban in 2013 nothing could prepare her for how difficult it is getting back to playing matches.
An added complexity for Sharapova is that she is playing one of the most awkward opponents on the tour tonight - the Italian Roberta Vinci. Vinci you may remember was the woman who ended Serena Williams bid for the calendar Grand Slam two years ago at the US Open with a bewitching cocktail of slice and softballing.
Vinci, the world No 36, has had a pretty wretched year so far, but she said on Monday that she didn't agree with Sharapova getting a wildcard here, and will without doubt make life as difficult as possible for the returning Russian.
The players will be out on court at about 5.30pm.
What is it?
It's the competitive return of Maria Sharapova from a 15-month drugs ban at the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart.
When is it?
Sharapova's ban expires at midnight meaning she can play her first official match later today on Wednesday, April 26.
Who is she playing?
The Russian faces 2015 US Open finalist Roberta Vinci.
What time will she be on court?
The match is not scheduled before 5.30BST but Sharapova has this morning been on the practice court with her coaching team.
What TV channel will it be on?
BT Sport have the rights to the WTA Tour and BT Sport 1 will have live coverage of Sharapova's return among other matches with their programme under way at 11am. Alternatively, you could bookmark this page and return for our live blog.
Why was she given a wildcard for the event?
Who else has given her a wildcard?
Organisers in Madrid and Rome followed Stuttgart's lead. But French Open officials have postponed a decision until the week starting May 15, as to whether they will also offer the 2012 and 2014 champion a place in its main draw.
Remind me, why was Sharapova banned again?
Sharapova initially was given a two-year suspension after testing positive for heart drug meldonium at last year's Australian Open. She had her ban reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled that Sharapova bore "less than significant fault" in the case and that she could not "be considered to be an intentional doper." Sharapova had been taking meldonium for many years, but overlooked an announcement by WADA that it added the drug to its banned list as per January 1, 2016.
How have the players reacted?
The Stuttgart organisers' announcement in January sparked a debate which has hardly cooled, three months later. Caroline Wozniacki said "It's disrespectful to other players."
Dominika Cibulkova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Andy Murray also spoke out publicly against wild cards for players who return from doping bans. German players, led by two-time defending Stuttgart champion Angelique Kerber, have also voiced criticism. German Fed Cup captain Barbara Rittner said at the weekend that "Sharapova should have started from zero again," meaning entering smaller tournaments and the qualification stage of the bigger events.
How has Sharapova been preparing for her return?
According to her social media posts, Sharapova travelled to Germany last Friday. She has been training in the hall of a local tennis club, Sillenbuch. As a banned player, she has no access to official tournament facilities until Wednesday.
Will Wimbledon hand her a wildcard?
Sharapova may not need one. If she gathers the 600-odd ranking points between now and the end of the Internazionali BNL D’Italia in four weeks’ time she would earn a place in the Wimbledon main draw by right.
What if she doesn't get the ranking points?
She is most likely to collect the 260-ranking points needed over the next five weeks to win a place in Wimbledon but that could present a problem in itself. Unlike Roland Garros, Wimbledon does not have the facilities to run qualifying on its main site.
What's your prediction?