Maria Sharapova back where she belongs

Nobody likes a person who takes recourse to devious methods, especially one who had been the soul of tennis for years. However, Maria Sharapova has weathered the storm and will be back in action at the WTA Stuttgart Open on April 24.

Sharapova has overcome the period where she had to stay away from something which defined her life since she was four.   -  AFP

Some of the greatest stories in this world are at times visited by a tragic episode — a low point in one’s life which pushes one to a corner from where walking out back into the light seems impossible. But by overcoming fear, frustration or fighting back the inner demons and challenging the unwarranted social judgement that one faces at times, some eminent sportspersons go through multiple rebirths.

When Maria Sharapova made the shocking revelation of how she failed a drug test, it was difficult for people to digest the possibility of a tennis star of her stature ending up in such a situation. Some put her on the same platform as Lance Armstrong. Some even linked her to the Russian doping scandal. And it didn’t take much time for her popularity to crumble. After all, nobody likes a person who takes recourse to devious methods, especially one who had been the soul of tennis for years.

However, Sharapova has weathered the storm and will be back in action at the WTA Stuttgart Open on April 24.

The two-time French Open champion had dominated the clay event of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix before the current World No. 1 Angelique Kerber won back-to-back in 2015 and 2016. And Kerber, along with former women’s World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, has disapproved of Sharapova getting wild card entries at Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome!

The Russian’s return to tennis will intensify the competition with Serena Williams still recovering from injury. Moreover, Serena herself has plans of playing in a lesser number of tournaments to keep herself injury-free for the Grand Slams and the big events.

In recent years, the women’s circuit has been devoid of a player who has dominated like Serena. Kerber, Karolina Pliskova, Garbine Muguruza, Simona Halep, Dominika Cibulkova... too many players have won the odd tournament or two without really stamping their authority.

Sharapova's return not only marks a new beginning in her career, but in women's tennis as well. She has been one of the ambassadors of the game for more than a decade now.   -  Getty Images

Pliskova, Elina Svitolina and Johanna Konta have won two titles each till now this year. Then there are the likes of Elena Vesnina, who won the Miami Open. While Pliskova and Konta are 25 years old, Svitolina is 22. Vesnina is the only one who has hit 30. But, unlike Sharapova, Vesnina has not been bothered by injuries in her career and her performance in singles is on a resurgent mode. Sharapova turns 30 on April 19, just a few days before she hits the court again. But, age hardly plays a role if one is strong mentally. Self-confidence plays a vital role and Kerber, the Williams sisters and Vesnina are examples of how a strong and positive mind can take one’s career in the right direction.

Kerber complained of fatigue after playing continuously last year. Apart from reaching the final of Monterrey a week back, the German’s year has been way different from 2016 – when she won two Grand Slams, an Olympic silver medal and the World No. 1 ranking. Sharapova returns after having rested for more than a year now. She is as fresh as she can ever be. She used the time away from tennis by going to school, working in an advertising agency, and even watching NBA matches.

She admits that life without tennis scared her. In her own words: "in difficult times, one builds a lot of inner strength, even without realizing it."

It is this thought and strength that can enable Sharapova to be too much for the likes of Kerber, Pliskova and Muguruza.

In her interview to the Le Parisien, she said: “When we are a champion, the only goal is to become a champion again. But it will be difficult after such a long absence. I chose to put myself in danger by chaining the tournaments of Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome. I always have the impression that I am an artist, a performer: the court is my stage, this is my scene. The walk from the cloakroom in the corridor or the tunnel, and then they raise the curtain and voila! Me, facing another person. I love it and that's what I think. What I feel when I play tennis, this desire to improve myself, to become a champion again, is what still carries me today.”

A wounded tiger is a dangerous beast.

Sharapova has overcome the period where she had to stay away from something which defined her life since she was four. She went down in the esteem of the ITF, her fellow tennis players and the fans. Even at a time when she readies herself to return, probably for the final phase of her professional career, her opponents are not happy with the way she has been welcomed back.

She has nothing to lose. She doesn’t have a ranking. She is starting fresh. Her return not only marks a new beginning in her career, but in women's tennis as well. She has been one of the ambassadors of the game for more than a decade now.

Her agent revealed that Sharapova would have probably hung her boots this year, if she hadn't been suspended last year. However, the rejuvenated tennis superstar has plans to continue till the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, if her body permits. And, that is not an impossible dream. If that intention is a sign of how enlivened she is now, then her adversaries have a lot to worry about.