When Maria Sharapova received a ban from playing tennis due to doping, it is fair to say that the world of sport was shocked. Russian athletes have had a tough time of it recently and controversy surrounds a number of their sportstars but none of them come close to the reputation of Sharapova. Meldonium, the substance in question, has since become a word that is well known to tennis fans since this saga became apparent back in March 2016. The ban that was put in place by the ITF (International Tennis Federation) was appealed and reduced to 15 months. That time is almost up, so what next next for the 29 year old Russian?
Sharapova has recently announced that, all being well, she plans to make her comeback to the WTA tour in April 2017 at the Stuttgart Porsche Tennis Grand Prix but what kind of reception can she expect? When news of the failed drugs test and resulting ban became public knowledge, many big names of tennis, past and present, showed little sympathy for the five time Grand Slam champion. People such as John McEnroe, Jennifer Capriati and Andy Murray all supported the action taken by the ITF but the most telling comments were from Chris Evert and Dominika Cibulkova.
If Evert only implied that Sharapova was a bit of a recluse on the tour and not the most popular player around then Cibulkova just stated it outright. The Slovakian star was giving an interview in her home town prior to a tournament when she mentioned her surprise at the diplomatic reactions of other players, implying that they were not saying how they truly felt. Cibulkova went on to say “I don't feel sorry at all for Sharapova and I don't miss her on the tour. She's a totally unlikeable person. Arrogant, conceited and cold.” Not exactly a great endorsement for a woman who was regularly named by Forbes as the highest paid female athlete on the planet.
So she may not be greeted with hugs, kisses and a big bouquet of flowers by the other players when she arrives in Stuttgart but what will the fans think of her? Sharapova undoubtedly won herself many of her supporters due to her success early in her career. She was just 17 years old when she burst onto the big stage and took Wimbledon by storm in 2004, winning her first Grand Slam title. Beating Lindsay Davenport and Serena Williams on the way to victory made the whole world stand up and pay attention. She was young and talented and so the fans and the sponsorship just began to roll in almost uncontrollably.
Despite the controversy that has taken over her life over the last year, there are still plenty of supporters out there. The Instagram page of Sharapova has 2.3 million followers, not bad for someone who hasn't played tennis for over a year. To put that figure into context it is worth noting how many followers some of the other big name tennis players currently have. Although Serena Williams has way more than anyone else, Angelique Kerber has 289k, Caroline Wozniacki has 979k and Venus Williams has 701k, meaning that Sharapova has more followers than those three combined. She also isn't too far behind Nadal and Federer.
When you read the comments on her Instagram and see the adoration that her fans have for her on Twitter, it is obvious that many people are desperate for her return. Whether or not she deserves to return to tennis is purely down to opinion. There are people who believe drug bans should be permanent and others who believe that mistakes can happen and each case should be judged on its own merits. Personally my stance is that once you have served your ban you should be allowed back into the sport but if you are caught doping a second time, the next ban should be permanent. For example, I don't believe Justin Gatlin should still be competing.
So with a potentially frosty reception from her fellow competitors and a mixture of unrelenting support and disappointed head shaking from the fans of tennis, there is one more question that is begging to be answered. Has tennis actually missed Maria Sharapova and does the sport even need her anymore? Her fans will of course say that women's tennis has been much worse off for her absence but what about a neutral? Well, here to provide a neutral point of view is myself.
When Sharapova made the announcement that she had failed a drugs test it damaged the reputation of the women's game. Tennis already has a dark under belly with match fixing scandals, it did not need a doping scandal too. Yes Sharapova has been one of the superstar names that women's tennis needs if it is to compete with the men's game in terms of viewership, but as one of the best and most popular women in tennis and as the highest paid female athlete in the world, she was a role model to so many. Whether taking meldonium after it appeared on WADA's banned substance list was deliberate or accidental, she harmed the reputation of herself and her sport.
Whether her early promise has truly been fulfilled or not is a discussion for another day but how good she will be after 15 months of no competition will be interesting to see. Does she have another Grand Slam title in the locker? I suspect not and even if she did, I am not convinced that she would be as popular a winner as she was at Wimbledon in 2004. There is a big question as to whether it ever does a sports image any good when a person who has served a doping ban then goes on to win a major title after that. If Justin Gatlin had beaten Usain Bolt to gold in Rio 2016 how many people would have cheered? If Sharapova beats Serena in the French Open final of 2017 will many people be happy?
It has been nine years since Sharapova won a Grand Slam on a surface other than clay and as she fast approaches 30 and with so long on the sidelines, I can't see that statistic changing any time soon. If she does come back and is able to win titles then it will certainly show that the determination and desire is still there burning brighter than ever but there will always be people that question it. Shaking the tag of 'drugs cheat' will be incredibly hard for Sharapova and it is perhaps a little sad that five years from now many young people will remember her doping ban more than her 2004 Wimbledon title.
Whether you love or loathe Sharapova, her return is almost upon us. She will need to quickly learn that while she has been away the likes of Kerber, Muguruza and Keys have been fast improving and that her place at the top will certainly not be gifted to her. Reaching the WTA top 10 is certainly not beyond her if she plays like she did in 2015 but with so long off the tour there really aren't any certainties in where the next chapter of the Sharapova story will go next. One thing that you can count on though is that her return in Stuttgart will have just about every media outlet in the world talking about her once again.
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