Maria Sharapova, five-time Grand Slam champion, received a two-year ban from tennis immediately before the 2016 Australian Open due to taking the newly-banned substance meldonium. On appeal, that ban was shortened to 15 months. Now, 15 months later, Sharapova has made her return to tennis in Stuttgart, Germany, and she did it in impressive form.
The Russian was granted a Wild Card into the tournament–a politically controversial decision that was a no-brainer to the tournament, given the number of fans and viewers that Sharapova is sure to bring in–had a tough task in her first match back after her 15-month hiatus. Roberta Vinci might not be at the same caliber she was that led to to shockingly upset Serena Williams in the US Open semifinal in 2015, but she is still a very talented player, especially on clay.
Sharapova received strong support from the crowd, but that paled in comparison to what she did out on the court. Sharapova had commented numerous times that she was a fighter and couldn’t get wait to play tennis again, but that still can’t prepare her for competitive play after missing 15 months. Well, there was a bit of rust in her game, but it’s clear that Sharapova is ready to play at a high level immediately.
The Russian was facing a talented opponent who was playing well, but Sharapova moved past Vinci with ease. Sharapova’s serve was dominant and she hit the ball very well off the baseline, coming away with a 75 63 win in under two hours. She’s not where she was when she won her Grand Slams, but only the most devoted of fans expected anything close to that in her first match back.
Sharapova could have had a very tough second-round match against Agniezska Radwanska, but the Pole was upset by Ekaterina Makarova in her first match. Makarova is no pushover, though, and this will be another challenge for Sharapova as we continue to see just how far along in her comeback she is and how long it might take her to achieve her top level of play.