Saturday, June 25, 2022

Free at last, Sharapova returns to her love

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Maria Sharapova will return to action at the Porsche Grand Prix next month after serving a 15-month ban for using banned drugs. / AFP PHOTO / John GURZINSKI

Former world number one, Maria Sharapova will return to action at next month’s Porsche Grand Prix, courtesy of a wildcard entry.

She was handed a two-year ban from the game last June after testing positive for meldonium (a banned drug), but the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) reduced the suspension to 15 months.

The 29-year-old Russian revealed that her return would be “difficult. In tennis, practice is never the same as match play, to face someone on the other side of the net.”

Sharapova is free to return this month, two days after the start of the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart, which means she cannot return to the game until probably the day of her first match, if she receives a bye in the first round. Sharapova also has wildcards for May’s tournaments in Madrid and Rome, though she has already taken part in two exhibition events since her ban was reduced.

She last played a professional tournament at the 2016 Australian Open, where she failed her drug test. Taking to her twitter handle to announce her return, she posted a photo of herself and tweeted, “I’ve got my day job back. It’s great. I’ve been training quite hard for the past four months.”

Sharapova was a long-time user of meldonium and claims she was unaware it had been added to the banned list at the start of 2016. This was even as the International Tennis Federation (ITF) revealed that it had long sent mails to all athletes, listing banned and controlled substances, drugs and supplements. In her defense, she said she never opened the mail, neither did anyone in her team.

After judgment was handed down, the Russian star has been appealing the ban, till CAS recently said after findings they realized ‘she wasn’t an intentional doper’ and reduced her suspension.

Her ban, suspension and subsequent return has generated several controversies and heated debates amongst fellow players, pundits and fans of the sport. While some feel she was handed a lenient sentence and should be banned for life, others feel she has been punished enough and should be allowed to return to the game, while others are still undecided. But what is certain is that this has brought again to the fore, the heated debate on illegal substance use amongst players in the sport. Despite regular, random checks, speculations are rife that a lot of players use drugs and while some have been sanctioned, a lot of others go undetected.

In 2013, Croat, Marin Cilic was handed a nine-month ban after he tested positive for a banned substance which he says he took inadvertently from his mother. However, he came back to win the 2014 US Open, defeating Roger Federer in straight sets on the way to the title. After his victory, talk rose up again but nothing was proved.

In 2013 also, Viktor Troicki of Serbia was handed an 18-month ban but was later reduced to 12 months for refusing to take a drug test at the Monte Carlo Masters that year. He said he was unwell and wanted to be excused from taking a test at the moment. This did not go down well with the governing body and he was immediately suspended.

Troicki was the first top player in recent times to be banned before the duo of Cilic and Sharapova and several critics have described it as ‘witch-hunting’, claiming the ITF was going after random top players in a bid to look tough and show the world that the sport is clean.

One thing that is sure, however, is that Sharapova is going to return and she says she is ready to win slams again and take her rightful place at the top. This is going to be a long, tough, journey for the former world number one as she is presently not ranked.

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