AFTER 15-month doping ban, Maria Sharapova marked her return on Wednesday with a rusty 7-5, 6-3 win over Roberta Vinci in Stuttgart, describing victory as the “best feeling in the world”.
Sharapova, the former world number one and five-time Grand Slam champion, brushed off a nervous start to eventually claim a convincing win on her controversial comeback having tested positive for meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open.
“It’s the best feeling in the world to walk out (on court), it’s been a stage of mine since I was a young girl and it was very special,” said Sharapova who celebrated her win with a succession of double fist pumps and a broad smile before blowing kisses to all corners of the Porsche Arena.
“I have been waiting for this a long time.”
Sharapova was given a wildcard to play in Stuttgart, where she has been champion three times, a move which drew a barrage of criticism from rivals who believed she was receiving preferential treatment.
She fired 39 winners and 11 aces past 34-year-old Vinci, one of many to have voiced her concerns over the Russian benefitting from wildcards.
After receiving warm applause from the crowd, which included one fan who held up a Russian flag bearing the words ‘Welcome back Maria’, Sharapova, dressed in an orange top and lilac-coloured dress, initially struggled.
She quickly found herself 2-0 down before she broke back to level at 2-0.
As was to be expected after her long break, Sharapova laboured to find her shots and Vinci profited from several mistakes.
But the 30-year-old Russian started to move her Italian opponent around the court and found her range with a pair of aces.
Sharapova finally broke the Italian in the 11th game and then held her service, converting her second set point in exactly an hour.
Vinci had lost to Sharapova in both their previous meetings and the Italian trailed from 2-0 down in the second set on Wednesday.
Sharapova quickly moved to 5-3 ahead up with an ace and extended her domination in the following game, racing into a 40-0 lead and converted her first match point for victory in one hour, 45 minutes.
– ‘At my best’ –
“I’ve been doing this for so long and this was my first match for a while, so when you are in the moment, you block everything else out,” said Sharapova.
“I’m competitive by nature, even when things aren’t working out.
“That’s when I am at my best, when I forget about everything, just be me and just compete.”
Sharapova will now play fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova in Thursday’s second-round.
“It’s going to be tough, but every match I play now is important for me,” she said.
“It’s important to just play, it’s a journey and it officially starts for me today and I am looking forward to playing as many matches as I can.”
Sharapova has also been granted wildcards into the Madrid and Rome tournaments and she will need similar generosity from Roland Garros if she is to make the main draw of the French Open, where she is a two-time champion.
On Wednesday, the French Tennis Federation repeated that they will not make a decision until next month.
“There is a date which has been fixed. There is no reason to make an exception for Maria Sharapova,” said FFT president Bernard Guidicelli.
“We will meet with the tournament director Guy Forget on May 15. The decision will be taken and communicated at 1900 (1700GMT) on Facebook on May 16.
“I know that there is strong expectation from the media and fans but we are not casting. This is not a rock-opera.”
With the likes of Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova sidelined — and potential heir Eugenie Bouchard struggling — women’s tennis needs pulling power and Sharapova ticks all the boxes for event organisers.
But many remain to be convinced.
Bouchard was quoted in an interview in Istanbul as describing her childhood idol as a “cheater”.
World number five Simona Halep, the fourth seed in Stuttgart, believes that handing Sharapova wildcards sends completely the wrong signal.
“I can’t support what the tournament director has done but in my opinion, for children and young players, it’s not OK to help players who were banned for doping with wildcards,” said the Romanian.