Can Maria Sharapova return to her best?

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    Next week, former world number one Maria Sharapova will make her return to professional tennis after serving a 15-month ban for taking a banned substance at last year’s Australian Open.

    The five-time Grand Slam champion, who turned 30 this week, has been given a wildcard entry into next week’s Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, a tournament she won three times between 2012 and 2014, in Stuttgart.

    It will be her first competitive tournament since she lost to Serena Williams in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Australian Open.

    Because of her status in the game, being a multiple Grand Slam champion and a former world number one, among other achievements, Sharapova can receive as many wildcards as needed as she mounts her comeback.

    The Russian has also been granted wildcards into Madrid and Rome, both tournaments she has won in the past, but at the time of writing it has yet to be decided whether she will be afforded one at next month’s French Open or at Wimbledon in July.

    It will remain to be seen how she adapts back into an environment which she has graced since the turn of the century, achieving the bulk of her success in her late-teens and early-twenties.

    Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros

    The recently-turned 30-year-old will be unranked, though any points she earns in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome will count towards her ranking, which was as high as number five at the time of her last competitive match.

    The game could also be headed for a changing of the guard at the top, especially with Serena Williams to miss the remainder of the 2017 season after announcing she is expecting her first child later this year.

    Angelique Kerber is now the world’s top female player as far as the rankings are concerned (though she will be deposed by Williams when the rankings are updated next Monday), while Johanna Konta and Karolina Pliskova are among those peaking at the right time in their respective careers.

    Sharapova’s impending return to the WTA Tour has been met with mixed reaction from various players, with Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki, Andy Murray and Simona Halep among those questioning why Sharapova has been afforded the luxury of wildcards when others could have received them.

    Most notably, the 30-year-old’s wildcard entry into the tournament in Rome has indirectly cost Francesca Schiavone one last chance to compete in front of her fans, the 2010 French Open champion having announced she would retire at the end of this year.

    Schiavone wasn’t even given a wildcard entry into the qualifying tournament, meaning Italian tennis fans will be denied the chance to offer their thanks to a player who helped put the sport on their map thanks to her victory at Roland Garros in 2010.

    Kerber said the situation involving Sharapova would be “strange” given the Russian would be playing her first match on the day she is allowed back on the site of a professional tennis tournament.

    While Murray stressed that those who have been found guilty of doping “should have to work their way back” (sentiments echoed by Halep), he understands why the Russian is being welcomed back onto the tour.

    “The majority of tournaments are going to do what they think is best for their event. If they think having big names there is going to sell more seats, then they’re going to do that”, the men’s world number one said in March.

    However, there are others who have offered their support for Sharapova, including her compatriot, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, as well as career rivals Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka.

    Williams was first to praise her rival for coming out as honest when she had admitted to taking the banned substance, meldonium, at last year’s Australian Open, while Azarenka said recently that her impending return would be “good for tennis and for entertainment”.

    serena-williams-venus-williams-australian-open-2017-tennis

    Speaking of Azarenka, the Belarussian has announced that she will make her professional comeback at the Stanford Open, which takes place a few weeks after Wimbledon, after more than twelve months out of the game.

    The two-time Australian Open champion gave birth to son, Leo, shortly before Christmas last year, and her absence has seen her ranking plummet into the 300s.

    Meanwhile, as stated above, American great Serena Williams has announced she is expecting her first child with her fiance Alexis Ohanian, to whom she got engaged late last year, around September.

    It means she will miss the remainder of this season and like those before her, including Azarenka and Kim Clijsters, her ranking will plummet while she takes an indefinite break from the game.

    The 23-times Grand Slam champion has not played since the Australian Open in January, in which she defeated Venus Williams in the final while eight months pregnant, as was revealed when the news of her pregnancy was confirmed by her publicist, Kelly Bush Novak.

    Back on topic now, and it will remain to be seen how Maria Sharapova fares in her return to professional tennis after fifteen months out of the game thanks to a careless mistake she made very early last year.

    She has previously come back from such a long absence a stronger player, like she did in 2009 when she reached the quarter-finals of the French Open after spending nine months on the sidelines due to a shoulder injury, during which saw her ranking dropped to as low as 126th.

    Three years later, the Russian would complete her career Grand Slam at Roland Garros, regain the world number one ranking for a brief period of time and win the Silver Medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

    However, it’s fair to say that her best tennis is well and truly behind her, and not only might she struggle to raise her game back to the level that it was all those years ago, but also catch up to the current pace of the game.

    If she needs some inspiration though, it’s that Marin Cilic went on to win the US Open in 2014 less than twelve months after completing a four-month suspension (reduced from nine on appeal) for “incautious use of glucose”.

    Cilic was three weeks short of turning 26 at the time of his triumph at Flushing Meadows three years ago, and went on to reach a career-high ranking of number six last November.

    But, having just turned 30, it’s doubtful Maria Sharapova will return to the peak of women’s tennis ever again.

    Or will she?

    We will all wait in anticipation as her comeback begins in earnest in Stuttgart next week.

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