When quizzed about the negative comments of others, Maria Sharapova likes to say that her tennis speaks for itself.
But now that the chorus of disapproval has subsided, 10 months after she returned from her doping ban with that headline-grabbing semi-final run in Stuttgart, Sharapova’s results are not shouting as loudly as planned.
A notable exception, of course, was on that emotional opening night at the US Open against world No.2 Simona Halep en route to the last 16, in her first Grand Slam appearance in 19 months. By the end of a ban-delayed and injury-disrupted season, Sharapova had also celebrated a 36th career singles title in Tianjin, and soared from unranked to 60th in just eight tournaments.
So that’s the good bit.
The 30-year-old is now at No.41 on a WTA rankings list she once headed, but a recurring theme has been a faltering body that last month added a forearm strain to the left thigh and arm injuries that cost Sharapova the grass-court season, and interrupted her campaigns on both European red clay and North American cement.
The five-time major winner said early in her return that she had arrived with few expectations.
“I just knew that all I could do before coming back was make a good base for my body, that I built a good base for my tennis,’’ she said in Madrid.
“You can train as much as you want, but playing the matches and being in that competitive environment is just not the same. You can never replicate it.’’
And, no matter how professional the preparation or helpful the wildcard leg-up, nor can you be sure of how you will react physically after 15 months away from competition.
But when Sharapova wrote on The Players’ Tribune website during her first – and longest – injury-enforced hiatus that she was “sure there would critics reading this and thinking, you know, karma’’, there is no doubt that the queue of gleeful rivals would have been lengthy.
Genie Bouchard was the most scathing when she called the endorsement queen to whom she was once compared in a marketability sense a “cheater” who should be barred permanently from the sport, while condemning the much-criticised “open-arms” welcome as setting a bad example to young players. Other were less forthright, but unimpressed all the same.
I think it's time for the players to lay off Maria. She made a huge mistake, paid dearly for it, "done the time" and now let's play ball
— Martina Navratilova (@Martina) May 9, 2017
Locker-room popularity has never concerned Sharapova but public opinion clearly does and at the Australian Open in January, when the Russian returned to the scene of her 2016 positive test for the newly-prohibited substance meldonium, wins over Tatjana Maria and Anastasja Sevastova preceded a 6-1 6-3 drubbing from the in-form Angelique Kerber.
The match raised more eyebrows for its one-sidedness than it did sighs of disappointment from the Melbourne Park masses.
It was in Australia that one of the proudest competitors in tennis spoke of welcoming tough draws and highly-credentialled opponents as a means of measuring where her game is at – although Sharapova’s latest loss, to 92nd-ranked qualifier Monica Niculescu in the first round in Doha, fitted into neither category.
How much was attributable to the forearm strain cited as the reason for relinquishing her Dubai wildcard the following week is unclear, but it seems safe to assume that one of the sport’s marquee attractions is not exactly where she would have imagined with two months left before Stuttgart marks the one-year anniversary of her much-hyped return.
Perhaps during the upcoming ‘Sunshine Double’ – she is a two-time champion at Indian Wells and five-time finalist in Miami – the injury clouds will clear and we will see what a fully-fit Sharapova can still accomplish.
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