Tennis: A stoic Maria Sharapova returns to the tour unbowed by attention or criticism

Maria Sharapova in action against Roberta Vinci during the WTA Stuttgart Tennis Grand Prix.
Maria Sharapova in action against Roberta Vinci during the WTA Stuttgart Tennis Grand Prix.PHOTO: REUTERS

STUTTGART (Germany) - 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 (April 26) - 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.

One of the 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 skepticism.

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

Never mind that many of the sport's best - seven of the world top 10, in fact - are here. The 4,500 that filled the stadium to capacity for a weeknight match came for the one player with zero ranking points.

Same goes for the media. About 150 media credentials were 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 - the night's group included Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ekaterina 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 her name was announced on court.

It was clear, however, that all her actions are now instinctively linked to the blot created by her 15-month doping ban. At one stage, 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 opponent 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.

She eventually beat Vinci 7-5, 6-3 and next plays Makarova on Thursday in the round of 16.

The five-time Grand Slam champion's other stiff test of the night awaited in 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. Mind you, she was mourning nothing - not the criticism against her, nor the loss of friendships with peers she never really formed anyway.

Of the some 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, the protagonist finally spoke for herself on Wednesday night, unafraid to slip in sarcasm when she saw fit.

"Words and quotes and articles (are) not what matter in life," she said. "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 competitor who cares only about how she is measuring up to the competition.

Even when asked if she felt hurt that her fellow players preferred if she did not gain entry into the competition via a wild card, Sharapova talked only about 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 talk and I have. I've done that by winning five Grand Slams and being No. 1 in the world."

Accompanied by an entourage of minders, Sharapova strutted out of the room the same way she walked in, nonchalant as ever about the scrutiny.