Maria Sharapova is closing in on a return to tennis, and not everyone is happy. The Russian, who is approaching the end of a fifteen-month doping ban, has been given wildcards to compete in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome- a move which has been openly criticised by some of her fellow professionals.
Caroline Wozniacki feels it is ‘questionable’ and ‘disrespectful’ while Angelique Kerber says it’s ‘a little bit strange’. Andy Murray wasn’t pleased either, offering that she ‘should really have to work your way back’ up the rankings on the expiration of her doping ban, while Roger Federer, in his own inimitable style, played the good old diplomat by sitting on the fence. Sharapova isn’t without her supporters on the tour; like Simona Halep, who feels the former number one’s return is good for the sport.
Ahead of her return, Sharapova has been talking to Vogue Magazine, where in a wide-ranging interview, the five-time Grand Slam champion talked about a number of issues, from her doping ban (obviously) to Serena Williams and even Grigor Dimitrov.
Sharapova is no stranger to adversity, given the general consensus that she isn’t the most likeable person on the tour, and she basically confirmed the notion when she said ‘I’m respected for what I do on the court, and that’s much more meaningful to me than someone saying that I’m a nice girl in a locker room”. It is therefore fair to conclude that she does not expect to receive much sympathy when she returns to the tour in April. When she was asked whether she feels she will bear this doping stigma for the rest of her career, she said regrettably, ‘absolutely’.
Sharapova bagged the suspension after testing positive for the drug Meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open, but the Russian, while taking responsibility for her mistakes, argued that she was not aware the drug had been banned by the World Anti-doping Agency. The 29-year-old said she failed to open an email link from the International Tennis Federation communicating the ban to all the players. She was initially suspended for two years by the ITF, but on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sports, she got the sentence reduced to 15 months.
Sharapova has been reflecting on the circumstances leading up to her ban, and she once again cited ignorance as a reason for her failed dope test, stating that she had got too comfortable using the erring drug, thus failing to realize it had been ruled illegal.
“I had been taking it for ten years,” she says, “and for about seven of those years I had gotten a written certificate from a WADA-accredited lab that all the substances I was taking were totally fine for me to take. I just became completely comfortable that they were fine. That’s the mistake I made: being too comfortable.”
Sharapova took the unusual step of announcing her doping violation in a press conference, rather than leaving the announcement to the authorities. That move was also met with plenty of criticisms, with many believing that it was a dubious attempt to steal a march on the system. Sharapova was adamant that that was not the case, arguing that she made the move to take responsibility for her actions, and show the world that she had nothing to hide.
‘I think if I was trying to hide something, I don’t think I would come out to the world and say I was taking a drug for ten years. If I was really trying to take the easy way out, that’s not a very smart thing to do.”
So what has Maria been up to during her time off? A lot! ‘I love being in motion, said Maria. ‘I love to work’.
First, she revealed that the trial process- all those months spent defending herself felt like the real punishment for her offence. Apart from that, she has kept herself very busy. The former world number one dedicated more time to her candy company, Sugarpova, and spent a lot of time travelling, reading and schooling. Sharapova also wrote her own memoir, due to be published in September. That should be a fun read.
When Sharapova wasn’t doing all that serious stuff, she was busy double dating!
“I didn’t even know what the hell that was!” she joked. “I was like, this is really new! And I kind of like it!”
Speaking of dating, the two-time Grand Slam champion revealed that she recently spent some time with former boyfriend, Grigor Dimitrov- as normal beings, and not as lovers. According to Sharapova, they ran into each other on one fateful night in New York.
“We closed down a restaurant after talking for five hours,” she says. “He was such an important part of my life, and he’s a very delicate, complicated person. It was so nice to just be normal human beings.”
The next few weeks will be far from normal for Maria Sharapova, with her return to the sport in just over a month’s time in Stuttgart set to be the subject of intense scrutiny. Sharapova has fought through many battles through her career, but this may be her toughest yet, to overcome the public cynicism that will surely accompany her return to the sport after a lengthy doping ban.