Maria Sharapova’s decision to play her first WTA tour match following a 15-month doping suspension on her very first day of eligibility is a signature move, and a warning shot to anyone who cares to listen. That includes the tournament at which she’ll return, the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, which is holding a slot open for her three days into the start of play—because she isn’t allowed to set foot on the grounds until then. If history is any indication, she will proceed to set that foot onto the throat of her first opponent.
We’ll see, though. For whoever gets the first crack at Sharapova, the 30-year-old, five-time major champion is returning to a transformed landscape. When she played her last tour match, against Serena Williams in the 2016 Australian Open quarterfinals, Garbine Muguruza was not yet a Grand Slam champion, neither Karolina Pliskova nor Madison Keys had established themselves as Top 10 pros and Johanna Konta had yet to hit her stride. All of them have improved significantly, and all of them can meet Sharapova on her own battleground of power tennis.
Then there is Angelique Kerber, who won two majors in Sharapova’s absence. Kerber can’t trade roundhouse punches with Sharapova, but she has made her way to the top by bumping up her own aggression to complement a talent for neutralizing opponents’ heavy serves and baseline blasts.
There’s a Part B to the theory that Sharapova might struggle to recapture her championship form. She turned 30 this past week and has already had periods when her play dipped below Top-10 class. The Russian is returning to a locker room full of players from whom she has always remained aloof and often viewed with disdain. Their lack of support for Sharapova when she tried to justify her use of the prohibited drug, meldonium, was striking.
But in the overwhelmingly mental game of tennis, Sharapova has always been the grand dame of intimidation and toughness. Which raises the question: What about Sharapova’s own attitude? Will she feel at all chastened? Has the suspension somehow changed her?
Chris Evert, an 18-time Grand Slam singles champion and ESPN television commentator, thinks it may have.
“I have a feeling there’s going to be a little different Maria that’s coming back,” Evert said. “I think that she’s had a little bit of a wake-up call as far as living life.
“I feel like she’s out of her bubble now. She went back to school for a little bit, she’s gotten better in her business, she’s made more appearances, she’s socializing more with her friends. I think she’s going to be more open.”
Chances are we’ll see the same old Sharapova next week. She may not be match hardened, but then again, she has had plenty of practice returning from lengthy layoffs due to a variety of injuries throughout her career.
Of course, a doping suspension is a little different. And the unique circumstances also embolden opponents who once acted like sacrificial lambs to behave more like long-denied children finally getting a whack at the piñata.
We—and she—can’t wait to find out.