German wildcard Laura Siegemund defeated Kristina Mladenovic in a final set tiebreak to win the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany yesterday. While winning a title on home soil is a huge deal for any player, this event will be remembered for the return of another player who received a wildcard: Maria Sharapova.
Her comeback is in its infancy, but here are a few big-picture thoughts from the Russian’s highly anticipated, yet controversial return.
There is Still a Great Player Somewhere in There
Sharapova’s level of play was a total mystery after her 15-month doping suspension. She answered a lot of those questions in a positive way. Her groundstrokes were mostly hard, flat and precise, just like they have been throughout her career.
Sharapova has also made a subtle change to her usually inconsistent serve. Her ball toss was noticeably lower in her first event back. Since 2007, shoulder issues have affected her serve. However, this change is worth keeping an eye on. She was among tournament leaders in all serving statistics and did not have a match with double-digit double faults.
Winning seven consecutive sets to start her comeback had to be a nice confidence booster for the five-time Grand Slam winner, as well as a warning shot to the rest of the tour. Sharapova is still very dangerous.
Sharapova Has a Ways to Go
For a player of Sharapova’s caliber and track record, trophies are the only measure of success. There is still some rust that needs to be knocked off for her to get back to the winner’s circle.
The lack of match play really showed in Sharapova’s three-set semifinal loss to Mladenovic. The Russian converted just three of 16 break points. You can practice all you want, but there is no substitute for playing the big points in matches.
The more matches she plays, the better Sharapova will get. Even she knows she has work to do. She was quoted as saying she was “very satisfied” with her first event back after her loss. While it is easy to see where she is coming from, the Sharapova the world has come to know over the years would never say anything like that unless she is going home with the big trophy.
In Spite of Her Transgression, Sharapova Remains a Consummate Professional
While the results are what matters at the end of the day, how Sharapova handled herself off the court in Stuttgart is what will stick with me.
She screwed up in a big way and was rightly punished for it. However, for the last 15 months, many of her fellow competitors have spoken out against her return while attacking her on a personal and professional level. Some of the jabs were fair, others not so much.
When the press gave her a chance to respond following her matches this week, Sharapova simply said she was “above that” and moved on. When asked about the possibility of not getting a wildcard into the French Open and having to play qualifying matches, she responded with, “I’ll play the juniors if I have to.”
She could have said that her achievements speak for themselves, but she didn’t. The fact that she is willing to pay even more dues to get back to the big stages is quite admirable.
Whatever you think of her, having the Sharapova story injected into a sport that is mostly stale at the moment is a great thing. Her comeback and the rest of both tours head to Madrid next week as preparations for the French Open continue to ramp up.
“From Our Haus to Yours”