WTA Finals 2016

Tennis: 'Maria has to earn support of her peers'

Tennis star Maria Sharapova competing in the World TeamTennis Smash Hits charity tennis event benefiting the Elton John Aids Foundation on Oct 10, 2016, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Tennis star Maria Sharapova competing in the World TeamTennis Smash Hits charity tennis event benefiting the Elton John Aids Foundation on Oct 10, 2016, in Las Vegas, Nevada.PHOTO: AFP

Tennis great Evert says Sharapova will face challenges when she returns from drug ban

Former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova will have a long road to the top when she returns to competition in April after serving a doping ban, and tennis legend Chris Evert believes it is not just ranking points that the Russian will have to earn.

Sharapova, who is now unranked, tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open in January. Earlier this month, her ban was cut from two years to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Speaking at a press conference on the sidelines of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, Evert said: "There doesn't seem to be a lot of support on the Tour, you know, I think she can have it all if she engages, and is nice to women.

"She wasn't really nice before - there were quite a few anti-Maria comments when she got banned."

One of the most scathing reactions to news of Sharapova's drug ban came from France's Kristina Mladenovic, who said that Sharapova was now considered a cheater by the rest of the Tour.

Mladenovic told French newspaper Le Parisien in March: "She wasn't really liked. I respected her for her career but she wasn't really nice nor polite, let's be honest."

But 18-time Grand Slam singles champion Martina Navratilova, who was also at yesterday's press conference, believes the women's locker room will have no problems accepting Sharapova's return.

Adding that it was "pretty clear" Sharapova, 29, had not intended to cheat, Navratilova said: "Now there's an opportunity to come back, I think the players will say, look, you messed up, you pay the price, that's life, you pay your dues, its not the same as going to prison."

Still, both Navratilova and Evert agreed on one thing: that the five-time Major champion would be hungry for victory when she returns to the Tour.

"She'll be fresh, be as competitive as ever, happy to be here with a different kind of outlook and attitude," said Navratilova, who played in a charity exhibition match in Las Vegas with Sharapova earlier this month. "It will definitely be a different situation for her, we'll see how the crowd will respond, the players as well, she will have to be a little nervous coming back, but I'm glad she will be back in the game."

Evert, who also has 18 Grand Slam singles titles, agreed, adding: "She's great for women's tennis.

" I think she is coming back into a tougher environment where the top 10, 15 players are playing better than when she left, but I just think she is going to be even more determined to sort of make a point when she comes back, because maybe in her mind she still feels she's been wronged."

Sharapova was the world's highest-paid women's athlete for 11 straight years until Serena Williams overtook her in June, according to business magazine Forbes.

Williams, who owns 22 Grand Slam singles crowns, earned US$28.9 million (S$40.22 million) over a one-year period that ended in June, while Sharapova banked in US$21.9 million over the same time.

World No. 4 Simona Halep acknowledged Sharapova's popularity with fans, saying: "I think fans like her and she has great support, so we'll see."

Asked if she thought the women's Tour needs its poster girl, however, the Romanian was more scathing when she told The Sunday Times: "I think every player is a good player in this sport, and I don't know if tennis needs her.

"I think tennis needs clean players, first of all."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 30, 2016, with the headline ''Maria has to earn support of her peers''. Print Edition | Subscribe