Tennis: Stoic Sharapova unmoved by countless criticisms

Maria Sharapova serving against Roberta Vinci of Italy in the first round of the WTA Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart. The former world No. 1 had 11 aces in her first competitive match since returning from a 15-month doping ban.
Maria Sharapova serving against Roberta Vinci of Italy in the first round of the WTA Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart. The former world No. 1 had 11 aces in her first competitive match since returning from a 15-month doping ban.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Word has it that while she was the subject of every interview conducted at the Porsche Arena, Maria Sharapova - banned from tournament grounds until Wednesday - had been practising in a nearby facility, located just a stone's throw away from the stadium.

If she were not close enough to hear all the rancour surrounding her, she must surely have felt the heat of scrutiny as she stepped onto centre court to play Italy's Roberta Vinci at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix on Wednesday, and again last night against compatriot Ekaterina Makarova.

One of world sport's biggest names, the Russian had been crowned champion thrice before on this very court but was now returning under the weight of criticism and scepticism.

She was victorious in both matches - 7-5, 6-3 against Vinci, then 7-5, 6-1 against Makarova last night - even if she has not won over her critics.

Figuratively and now literally under the spotlight, Sharapova initially looked as tense as the atmosphere in the arena was.

NOT PRESSING HER BUTTONS

Words and quotes and articles (are) not what matter in life... They go away. At the end of the day, what matters is on the court and that's why I'm here.

MARIA SHARAPOVA , the five-time G rand Slam champion, remains unaffected by the reactions toward her 15-month doping ban.

Never mind that many of the sport's best are here. The 4,500 that have filled the stadium to capacity for weeknight matches came for the one player with zero ranking points.

Same goes for the media. About 150 media credentials have been handed out this year, almost four times the number last year.

Heck, when was the last time a tiny crowd of singles and doubles players - Wednesday night's group included Svetlana Kuznetsova, Makarova, Elena Vesnina and Andrea Hlavackova - showed up in person to watch a rival play?

For the most part, spectators - some even toting Russian flags and signs supporting the 30-year-old - greeted Sharapova with applause as she was announced on court.

It was clear, however, that people now instinctively link any of her actions to the blot of her 15-month doping ban. At one stage in her match against Vinci, she mistakenly pointed out a wrong mark on the clay for the umpire to check and almost immediately invited dismissive whistles.

But even as the crowd cheered every important point that her opponents won, they also groaned at each miss that Sharapova made. It was as if they craved a fairy tale triumph for a prodigal daughter, yet were hesitant to be so readily forgiving of her errant behaviour.

The five-time Grand Slam champion's other stiff test on the night of her return awaited at the post-match press conference, where scribes gathered and waited elbow to elbow to examine her.

To the constant clicking of camera shutters, Sharapova showed up battle-faced and armoured to face some of her biggest critics.

Her hair rolled neatly into a bun, everything on Sharapova, from her leather jacket to her bag, right down to her shoes, was black. But mind you, she was mourning nothing - not the countless criticisms against her, nor the loss of friendships with peers she never really formed anyway.

Of about 20 questions posed to her, only three did not surround her positive test for meldonium, her subsequent ban from the sport and the divisive return she was now making. Each tough question received a straight-faced answer in return.

After having others do the talking all week - and arguably, over the 15 months of her ban - the protagonist was back to speak for herself.

Unshaken and unafraid, she slipped in sarcasm when she saw fit.

"Words and quotes and articles (are) not what matter in life," she said after beating Vinci. "There will be articles after I win a match, after I lose a match, after what somebody says. They go away. At the end of the day, what matters is on the court and that's why I'm here."

This is the Sharapova she has always been known as - a fierce competitor who cares only about how she is measuring up to the competition.

Any talk about Sharapova is unlikely to be divorced from a mention of the positive test that will now forever be a footnote on her career, but ask her if she feels any hurt, and the response, unsurprisingly perhaps, focuses only on showing up to compete, to face "the toughest in the world".

As a parting shot, she said: "I can't control what people say and I never have. The only thing I can control is what I do out there (on court).

"I'm always prepared to walk the walk and I have. I've done that by winning five Grand Slams and being No. 1 in the world."

Interrogation over, Sharapova strutted out the room the same way she walked in, nonchalant as ever to scrutiny.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2017, with the headline 'Stoic Sharapova unmoved by countless criticisms'. Print Edition | Subscribe