If Thursday night in San Juan was any indication of how Maria Sharapova will be received by the public when she returns to the WTA tour in 2017, the embattled five-time Grand Slam champion is in for a pleasant surprise.
Sharapova, taking on hometown hero and Olympic gold medalist Monica Puig in an exhibition in Puerto Rico, was showered with applause and cheers from the more than 12,000 fans in attendance at the José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum.
She made a concerted effort to give the event a personal touch, spending time meeting with fans and taking selfies.
Last nights selfie marathon... pic.twitter.com/vW4y21y0Xr— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) December 16, 2016
“Maybe when I come back in 10 years and retire, we’ll need a bigger stadium,” Sharapova told the adoring crowd after the match, which she lost, 6-3, 1-6, 10-6.
The former world No. 1 also spoke glowingly of Puig, who is beloved on her native island following her heroics in Rio de Janeiro this past summer.
Thank you for the nice words. We did it and YOU killed it! Congrats on an amazing event, Puerto Rico is a special place. https://t.co/YqNygOwpRJ— Maria Sharapova (@MariaSharapova) December 16, 2016
Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, a banned substance, at the Australian Open in January. In June, the International Tennis Federation suspended the Russian for two years. Sharapova subsequently appealed the hearing, and in early October the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced the ban to 15 months. She’ll be reinstated on April 26, a month before the start of the French Open.