STUTTGART, Germany (AP) Maria Sharapova was given a lukewarm welcome by 4,500 spectators upon her return to professional tennis on Wednesday after a 15-month doping ban.
After receiving a polite applause and some whistling when she entered the sold-out arena, the five-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 is playing Roberta Vinci in an opening-round match at the Porsche Grand Prix.
It’s the Russian’s first match since losing to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Australian Open, and her first match on clay in nearly two years.
Last year, Sharapova tested positive for the banned substance meldonium. She had her initial two-year ban reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled that the Russian bore “less than significant fault” in the case and that she could not “be considered to be an intentional doper.”
Sharapova had been taking meldonium for many years, but overlooked an announcement by the World Anti-Doping Agency that it added the drug to its banned list on Jan. 1, 2016.
Due to the suspension, Sharapova lost her ranking. But the three-time winner from 2012-14 was given direct entrance to the main draw of the Stuttgart event. Organizers in Madrid and Rome followed the example and handed her a wild card for their events in May as well.
Several players, including Vinci, have criticized the invitation for a player who has been caught doping.
Earlier Wednesday, Sharapova completed a one-hour training session on an empty center court. Because her suspension ended only at midnight, she had not been allowed to use official tournament facilities before, forcing her to visit a local tennis club in Stuttgart for training since last weekend.
MOSCOW (AP) Maria Sharapova was beaten by Magdalena Rybarikova 7-6 (3), 6-4 in the first round of the Kremlin Cup on Tuesday, ending her bid for a second title in two weeks.
Sharapova, who won the Tianjin Open two days ago, brought her usual power but lacked accuracy with some wild swings on key points.
“I felt fine physically, to be honest, especially after having played five matches in five days (in Tianjin). That was a big surprise,” Sharapova said. “Maybe I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been … Maybe if this tournament hadn’t been in Moscow, I wouldn’t have played it.”
Sharapova was under pressure on serve from the start and saved six break points before finally being broken to 6-5. She responded by breaking Rybarikova, but Sharapova’s double fault at 4-3 in the tiebreaker handed the Slovakian the momentum to close out the set.
Rybarikova, seeded eighth, sealed the match after saving two break points to lead 5-4, then breaking Sharapova in the next game. Rybarikova will play Alize Cornet in the second round.
Six months after she returned from a 15-month doping ban, Sharapova is still trying to move back up the rankings from her current position of 57th. Her first tour appearance in Moscow in a decade drew a large and enthusiastic crowd despite taking place on a Tuesday afternoon.
Also Tuesday, seventh-seeded Julia Goerges beat Russian qualifier Polina Monova 6-0, 6-3 to set up a second-round meeting with Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan.
In the men’s Kremlin Cup tournament, sixth-seeded Damir Dzumhur defeated Thomas Fabbiano 6-3, 0-6, 6-2.
TIANJIN, China (AP) Maria Sharapova won her first WTA title since returning from a doping ban after defeating Aryna Sabalenka to win the Tianjin Open on Sunday.
The Russian, a tournament wild card, overcame Belarusian teenager Sabalenka 7-5, 7-6 (8) despite trailing heavily in both sets.
Sharapova last won a title at the Italian Open in May 2015.
The former top-ranked player and owner of five major titles, including the 2006 U.S. Open, tested positive for the newly banned drug meldonium at the Australian Open in January 2016. That led to a 15-month doping ban, which expired in April.
“Such a special, special tournament, and victory for me, one that I’ll remember forever,” Sharapova said. “Sometimes you never know when it will all come together but it happened to me this week in Tianjin.”
Sharapova displayed resilience as she came from behind in both sets to overcome her 19-year-old opponent.
Sabalenka led 4-1 in the opener and 5-1 in the second before relenting to Sharapova’s greater big-match experience. It was Sharapova’s 36th WTA singles title.
The 30-year-old Sharapova played in her first Grand Slam tournament following the ban at the U.S. Open in August, where she reached the fourth round. Sunday’s result will lift Sharapova up to No. 57 in the world rankings.