July 10, 2020

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After the big comeback, back to work for Sharapova

Maria Sharapova’s return to the court after a 15-month suspension had to be an emotional moment for her. But she maintained her poise both during the match and in a post-match press conference with an overflow crowd that even included some of the British tabloids.

On Thursday – the day after – it seemed like business as usual.

Sharapova disposed of countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova 7-5, 6-1 and moved into the Stuttgart quarter-finals. It was a match that went all one way after Makarova blew a golden opportunity late in the first set.

All of a sudden, only a qualifier ranked No. 73 stands in the way of her reaching the semis of a Premier event in her first tournament back.

What is clear after just two days is that the 30-year-old will be as defiant and on message during her comeback as she was during the 15 months she was out of the game.

I’m back – deal with it

She’s not going to play the contrite, convicted “doper” who must somehow “prove to the world” that she feels terribly, that she’ll never do it again, that’s she’s “grateful to get a second chance” and that she’ll do anything to to be forgiven and get back into people’s good graces.

That’s what some people want to see. As if it would change anything. Even if she did it, there still would be people who will forgive her anything and people who will forgive her nothing.

By the way, if that’s what she needs to do, she’ll do it. Sharapova said Wednesday night she’d play juniors if she had to. But not because someone thinks she should, and not for the reasons they think she should.

The California Russian has been a sphinx throughout her career. She freely shows her competitive emotions on court. Off court, she is composed and controlled and professional and always on her guard. She protects her personal life fiercely; as a result she has managed to actually have a full one. No one in her workplace really knows her at all. Perhaps it’s that mystery some hoped would be revealed by the extraordinary circumstances of the last 15 months.

It won’t. She’s back. And she’s exactly the same. Maybe a little more ticked off and motivated. But the same. As if she’d never been gone.

You can ask, she won’t answer

The media was not particularly rough on Sharapova Wednesday night after her first match. There were two types of questions. There were the ones about the match and how wonderful it was to be back. Those were the slam dunks. The others were variations on a theme: just how contrite does she intend to be?

The answer is: not contrite in the least.Embed from Getty Images

One question most thought she might be open about was about her medications. If the meldonium for which she served the ban was so crucial to her heart and well-being, wouldn’t she have to find a substitute? A legitimate question, given how much emphasis was put on all the reasons she needed to take so much of it in the first place.

It’s not happening. “That information is between myself, the Women’s Tennis Association and the orthopaedic doctor I am working with now,” she said.

Maybe some people hoped the Sharapova who returned this week would be some softer, gentler version of her former public self. Would she suddenly extend a friendly hand to the other women in the locker room, after an entire career of treating it as a workplace, not a sorority? Which, by the way, it is – a workplace, where everyone is after the same job promotions and salary raises.

“I can’t control what people say. To have nicer things to say about me in press conferences, what will that change to my tennis?” she said, answering a question with a question.

If you won’t join ’em, beat ’em

Had she participated in more locker room gossip sessions or perhaps gone on vacation to the Maldives with a couple of her fellow Russian players, would her rivals not be saying all these mean things about her now? What an amusing notion.Embed from Getty Images

Asked about the comments made by fellow player Genie Bouchard, who went further than anyone – too far – in saying Sharapova was a cheater who should be banned for life – Sharapova didn’t take the bait.

“I don’t have anything to say – I am way above that,” was her response.

She’s not above it, but it’s a no-win question. Amid all the social-media blather that oozed Bouchard’s way about how the struggling Canadian had “no right” to say that given her lack of a major titles or that she’d be better served focusing on resurrecting her own game, there were quite a few people who agreed with her.

Sharapova knows she’ll never win them over anyway. And again, they have zero effect on what she shows up at work every day to do. Win tennis matches. Make money. Make her sponsors happy. Go home to her real life.

Dropping like WTA flies

The top active player on Tour, Angelique Kerber, went down meekly in her first match in Stuttgart. No. 5 seed Garbiñe Muguruza also flamed out early. So did No. 6 Johanna Konta. And No. 7 Agnieszka Radwanska. The only remaining seeds (No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep) are not in Sharapova’s half of the draw.

You can’t attribute the mass withering on the Stuttgart vine solely to Sharapova’s formidable presence. The WTA Tour has been like this all season long. Now, with the street-fighting Sharapova back in the ring, the withering will be all the more evident. No wonder they’d rather have her in the qualifying.

From Sharapova’s point of view, that’s not her problem, either.

Whichever side of the fence you’re on in terms of how bad her doping offence was, or whether you think she should claw her way back from the bottom to pay the price for it or not (more than the 15 months of career and millions she’s already lost), she’s just going to keep doing what she’s doing.