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Sharapova, victorious in return, keeps focus on tennis

Maria Sharapova hit 11 aces en route to her first win since last year’s Australian Open. 

STUTTGART, Germany — It was shortly before 9:50 p.m. local time (3:50 p.m. ET) when Maria Sharapova marched into a makeshift interview room, high inside the Porsche-Arena. She sat down, took a quick look at the gaggle of press and photographers in front of her, and allowed herself the slightest of smiles.

Having been missing from the tour for more than a year after testing positive for a banned drug, Sharapova was back, front and center. As she said on court an hour or so before, after her 7-5, 6-3 win over Roberta Vinci of Italy in the first round of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix: “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”

Sharapova was banned for 15 months, reduced from two years on appeal by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, for her use of meldonium, a Latvian-produced drug that is thought to increase the amount of oxygen in the blood that flows to the heart. The Russian said she had been taking it for several years as part of a package of medications for a number of complaints, including a heart issue, and that she had not known it had been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list at the start of 2016. The drug is not available or approved for sale in the United States.

A rumor made the rounds Wednesday that Sharapova’s support team would try to restrict the questions so they were related only to her match. It would have been a PR disaster and surely an impossible task, given the importance of the occasion, for which more than 250 media members across television, digital and print had made it to Stuttgart in southern Germany.

But Sharapova faced the music. In a series of interviews in recent weeks, she has criticized the ITF for not alerting her clearly enough that meldonium was being added to the banned list. Her agent has slammed bad press and other players, such as Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki, who said Sharapova should not receive a wild card into Stuttgart, where the main draw began Monday, two days before her ban expired. Sharapova, who turned 30 last week, said she isn’t angry.

“Not at all,” she said. “I’m not an individual that’s angry or bitter. In the past many months, I’ve been very present in everything I’ve done. There were a lot of things in my life that I probably would never have done in my 20s, and I experienced it and I was very present living it. I was studying, I was living, I was working, I grew business, I formed friendships that I didn’t ever have the time to form, and as a woman, as a 29-year-old, it was very liberating.

“Was it a way I wanted to experience these things? Absolutely not. But I had the opportunity, and I did it. I can’t control what people say. The only thing I can control is what I do out there, and those are my mottos. I’ve always preferred to walk the walk, and I have, and I’ve won five Grand Slams and been No. 1 in the world.”

Because the Porsche tournament is only a 28-woman draw, some first-round matches can be played on Wednesday, as has happened in many previous years. Though Sharapova was not allowed to set foot in the stadium until Wednesday, she is able to begin her comeback at a tournament that she has won three times and that is run by one of her main sponsors.

There is no specific rule on the WTA Tour that caters to this kind of situation — at least not yet — but it left a bad taste for many of Sharapova’s competitors, several of whom said the Russian should earn her way back without the help of wild cards from tournaments. Others said she had served her time, and since Grand Slam champions can ask for an unlimited number of wild cards, she was entitled to play.

“I’ve been offered wild cards into the draws,” Sharapova said. “I’m not being given the trophy. I have no ranking. I have to get through the matches, and I still have to win them. That’s my job.

“It’s not my job to think if [the criticism] is personal or not. Words and quotes and articles is not what matters in life, and I learned that very well in the past year. At the end of the day, all that matters is what’s on the court, and that’s why I’m here.”

The only time she really bristled was when she was asked whether she had found a legal replacement for meldonium. “That information is between me, the WTA and the orthopedic doctor that I’m working with now,” she said, her eyes gleaming.

The fact is, Sharapova is an even bigger box-office draw than ever. The presence of numerous television crews and the resultant live coverage of her return worldwide show how marketable she remains, especially with Serena Williams, the world No. 1, on maternity leave.

A quick tour of the venue is enough to see the influence of the five-time Grand Slam champion on the promotion of the tournament. In the Schleyer Halle, adjacent to the stadium, among the various sponsor stands is one for Sugarpova, where fans are enticed by the offer of a hand-signed autograph of the candy company’s founder for every expenditure of €20 or more. Business on Wednesday was steady rather than spectacular, influenced perhaps by a queue of 50-60 people waiting to see Germany’s Kerber, the world’s No. 2 player, who was posing for photos and giving autographs of her own nearby.

Sharapova’s practice, which began at 9:15 a.m. local time, was streamed live on the WTA’s website and had more than 54,000 views within seconds of its conclusion. In breaks, she sipped her drink while her eyes scanned the stadium. When Carla Suarez Navarro, a Spaniard Sharapova has played five times, arrived to replace her on court, she did not even look her way. Later, after a second practice session next to the concession stands, Sharapova smiled for photos and signed autographs for fans.

She has already been given wild cards into both Madrid and Rome next month, but she will have to wait until May 16 — a decision to be announced via Facebook Live — to learn if she will be given one to the French Open, where she was the champion in 2012 and 2014. If she makes it to the weekend in Stuttgart, she might have enough points to get into qualifying in Paris by right, while the cutoff for direct entry to the main draw at Wimbledon is May 23.

“I think I’d be prepared to play in the juniors [at Roland Garros], if I had to,” she said. “I think everyone in this room knows what a competitor I am, that I never take anything for granted, and if I get the opportunity to be in the draw, then I will take it.”

Unanswered questions remain. If Sharapova does not qualify for Wimbledon by right, organizers say they will consider her application for a wild card, just as they would any other player. It’s a decision they would doubtless rather not have to make.

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