And she’s back. Slowly shaking the controversy from her racket strings as she makes her way through the rounds at the US Open, Maria Sharapova is back in business.
Now settled into the fourth round in Flushing Meadows thanks to yet another error-strewn but, ultimately, doggedly determined win on Friday night (she beat Sofia Kenin 7-5, 6-2), the former champion and former world No.1 is lapping up the attention and loving every moment of her return to the spotlight. And she has not changed a bit.
Arriving in New York with a specially designed sparkly frock, she made an impact the moment she walked out into the huge Arthur Ashe Stadium. This was her stage and these were her people; she had made her fashion statement. When she beat Simona Halep, the world No.2, in almost three hours in the first round, she had delivered her statement of intent.
When Sharapova returned from a 15-month drugs ban back in April, she was bombarded with wild cards – there was not a tournament director alive who did not see the marketing potential of having her as part of their event.
That brought howls of protest from some sections of the locker room: it was not right or fair that someone who had failed a drugs test (she tested positive for the heart drug meldonium at the Australian Open in 2016) should be ushered back up the rankings with all these free passes into big events, or so the argument went.
But whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, women’s tennis needs Sharapova.
Serena Williams is at home in Florida showing off her new baby daughter and in her absence, there is only one other superstar in town: Sharapova. The rest of the women’s field is densely populated with talent – the race for the year end No.1 spot will go down to the wire this season – but if the US Open wants to get bums on seats for a women’s match, they need either Serena or Sharapova on court. It is just a fact of business life.
As a result, the world No.146 has been scheduled to play her every match so far in the Arthur Ashe Stadium. Caroline Wozniacki, the world No.5, was fuming about this as she stumbled out of the tournament in the second round to Ekaterina Makarova. That match had been relegated to Court No.5 and the Dane made her feelings clear: she deserved better and Sharapova did not deserve anything at all. Sharapova brushed the complaints aside in her own, inimitable way.
“With regards to scheduling, as you know, I don’t make the schedule,” she said on Friday night. “I’m a pretty big competitor. If you put me out in the parking lot of Queens in New York City, I’m happy to play there. That’s not what matters to me. All that matters to me is I’m in the fourth round.”
And then, with that deadpan timing of hers, she added the final sideswipe: “Yeah, I’m not sure where she is,” she said, knowing full well that Wozniacki was back at home, licking her wounds and harrumphing about the unfairness of it all. Wozniacki was not even history any more at the US Open. Ah, we have missed Sharapova.
But for all that, she is a champion at heart. When she beat Halep, she was in tears – and that is a rare sight – because finally she had proved that she was back not only as a celebrity but as a competitor. When the on-court interviewer asked her what the win had proved, she revealed a little of what makes her tick.
“It shows that behind all of these Swarovski crystals, this girl has got some grit,” she said, grinning from ear to ear.
It is what many people forget or overlook about Sharapova – she wants to win and she will move heaven and earth to do it.
Twice she has come back from career-threatening shoulder injuries, sweating and grafting her way through rehab on anonymous practice courts just to give herself a chance to play for a big title again.
Now she is fighting her way back up the rankings after the drugs ban and, by reaching the fourth round this week, she will be back inside the world’s top 100. Now she will not need a wild card to get into the Australian Open in January and she has put to bed another part of the controversy surrounding her comeback. It is just what Sharapova does.
Today, she plays Anastasija Sevastova, the world No.17 from Latvia. They have never played before but Sharapova, ever the pro, had a quick look at Sevastova’s straight sets clobbering of Donna Vekic on Friday before preparing for her own match with Kenin.
“She’s had a great year,” Sharapova said. “A big game. Serves well. Again, gets a lot of balls back. Uses the slice quite well. I’ll get back on the practice court tomorrow and get ready for that one.”
The match may not be pretty and there will be errors aplenty from the Russian’s racket but she will not go quietly; there is a place in the quarter-finals of the US Open to fight for, after all.
Oh, yes, Sharapova is back.