Maria Sharapova's Australian Open return could barely have been better timed. The Russian missed last year's event in Melbourne due to a doping ban, but is a regular contender at the season's opening Grand Slam.
In a sign of things to come, the withdrawal of Serena Williams – not ready to return after giving birth to her first child in September – took away significant star power from the women's draw. But in a Grand Slam potentially set to suffer more significant losses – Andy Murray is already out and other big names are under injury clouds – the return of Sharapova to Melbourne Park is perfectly timed.
The 2008 champion and five-time major winner may not be overly popular with her rivals, but she is still a drawcard among supporters. A slam winner as a teenager, Sharapova quickly rose to stardom, and she is a regular contender in Melbourne.
The 30-year-old reached at least the semifinals in four straight years beginning in 2005, completing that run by winning her third major. She has been a three-time runner-up in Australia, including losing the 2015 decider to Williams.
That Sharapova's return is a major boost is a concern when it comes to the rest of the women's field. World No. 1 Simona Halep is yet to win a major and the Romanian has a poor record in Melbourne, losing in the opening round four times in seven appearances. Caroline Wozniacki is still searching for a major breakthrough and has been to the semifinals at this slam just once.
A two-time major winner, Garbine Muguruza reached the quarters last year, while 2016 champion Angelique Kerber is coming off a poor 2017, although she may be finding form again. With no Serena in the field, the opportunities open up again in what should be an entertaining and unpredictable draw.
But Sharapova's Melbourne return at least adds a major drawcard, and that is just what was needed.