Tennis: Maria Sharapova Is Back!
Maria Sharapova returns after a 15-month doping ban Wednesday, desperate to rediscover the glory which brought her five Grand Slams, the world's top ranking and a spectacular multi-million dollar lifestyle.
The poster girl of women's tennis won't necessarily be welcomed back with open arms by rivals who were already suspicious of the towering Russian's ice-cold detachment even before her fall from grace.
However, Sharapova isn't losing any sleep as the 30-year-old prepares for her first match since being defeated by Serena Williams in the 2016 Australian Open quarter-finals
"That is the least of my concerns. I know that I am respected in my field. I see it in how my opponents play against me," said Sharapova who was controversially handed a wild card into this week's Stuttgart event, a clay court tournament sponsored by Porsche, one of her headline backers.
She was even given a Wednesday start as that's the day her ban -- imposed for testing positive for meldonium at last year's Australian Open -- comes to an end.
Sharapova, who starts her Stuttgart campaign against Italian veteran Roberta Vinci, had been taking the over-the-counter cardiac supplement when it was within the rules, but was later reclassified as a prohibited drug.
Far from being remorseful, Sharapova recently hit out at tennis authorities for failing to give her sufficient warning that meldonium had become a banned substance.
The Russian will step onto centre court at 1830 (1630 GMT) on Wednesday and could not have picked a better tournament for her return, having won the Stuttgart title three times, and suffering just one defeat.
If she gets through her opener, she could face Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska, one of her fiercest critics, in the second round.
Radwanska, the sixth-seed in Stuttgart, expects a 'fierce' return from the Russian, but says Sharapova should have had to qualify on merit rather than being given a free pass on a wild card.
- 'Journeymen' rivals –
"This kind of entry into the tournament should apply to players who dropped in the ranking because of injury, illness or some other random event. Not for those suspended for doping," said Radwanska.
Sharapova can expect plenty of support from the Stuttgart organisers as her return is the highlight in the tournament's 40th anniversary celebrations.As an ambassador for Porsche, she is sure of a warm welcome. Her confectionary brand -- Sugarpova -- will have a stand in the tournament's retail village.