Maria Sharapova had us going for a few days there, didn’t she?
On Monday night, she returned to the United States Open, her first Grand Slam tournament after a 15-month suspension for doping, and the crowd welcomed her as if it had missed her. It roared as she scrapped through three sets against the No. 2 seed, Simona Halep, and it roared some more when she fell to her knees in tears after winning.
The show of emotion made sense. In her biography, “Unstoppable,” to be released in two weeks, Sharapova says she once thought “the whole world was against me” because of the doping scandal. On Monday, right there in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the Open’s grandest stage, she realized it was not.
Maybe that flash of vulnerability was enough to get you rooting for Sharapova, an unlikely underdog often considered more aloof than adorable in the earlier portion of her career, which included five Grand Slam singles titles, including one at the 2006 Open.
But maybe it wasn’t. Maybe you, like at least one top player here, think she doesn’t deserve the star treatment coming off a doping ban. Maybe you, like another top player, don’t think she should have gotten a wild card into the main draw at all.
And maybe the result of Wednesday’s match got you thinking something different altogether. There were no tears and no high drama. Sharapova went back to work, beating 66th-ranked Timea Babos of Hungary, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 6-1.
So much for that heart-tugging underdog narrative. Some of the top-seeded players — including not only Halep but also No. 5 Caroline Wozniacki, No. 6 Angelique Kerber and No. 7 Johanna Konta — have lost already. Serena Williams isn’t even here. So in a matter of 72 hours, Sharapova the underdog is suddenly an unexpected favorite, and one with an easy road to the semifinals.
That label is making some people uneasy.
With all of her doping baggage, would Sharapova be the Open’s first choice as the face of the tournament heading into its second week? Probably not. But Williams is out, pregnant with her first child, and some of the biggest hitters have fallen early. Several top men, including Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, never arrived, citing injuries. So Sharapova is the kind of big name the tournament needs.
Some of her competitors, however, could do without her.
CoCo Vandeweghe this week said that she didn’t agree with Sharapova’s wild card, arguing it should have gone to an American instead. Earlier this year, Agnieszka Radwanska said that Sharapova shouldn’t get any free passes, that she should work her way back into the sport “beginning with smaller events.” Eugenie Bouchard was more blunt: She called Sharapova a cheat and said she should be barred from the sport.
Like it or not, though, it looks as if Sharapova might keep winning; she won’t play a top-10 player until the semifinals, and she has said she feels as if she’s getting better. Get ready, Sofia Kenin. You’re up next.
“I think the way that I played Monday night,” Sharapova said, “I don’t think there are any more questions.”
Oh, but there are questions. And doubts. And skepticism over what exactly unfolded with her doping case. Sharapova could be so far inside her bubble that she doesn’t see that. Or maybe she just doesn’t want to see that.
Still, the cloud over Sharapova is part of the reason French Open and Wimbledon officials stiff-armed her potential returns at their tournaments. Those officials, overtly in the French Open’s case, wanted to make a statement about doping, and make it clear they would not show leniency for someone who broke the rules, whether she did it on purpose or not.
This week’s results are not Sharapova’s first break, however. After she tested positive for the banned drug meldonium at the Australian Open in 2016, she received a two-year ban, but eventually had it reduced to 15 months because her violation was ruled “unintentional.”
It was much too long a ban for a case with so many gray areas anyway, especially for an athlete who admitted to taking the drug after Jan. 1, when it became banned, and not a few days before, which would have cleared her.
Yet she did admit she had been taking the drug since she was 18, to overcome a list of ailments so long that it makes one wonder how she ever became the world’s top player in the first place. It would have been more plausible if Sharapova had just said she was taking the drug for 10 years because it gave her an athletic edge. But then, regardless of her family medical history, she couldn’t say that, and it’s too late for alternative excuses now.
Evidently, it’s also bad timing for transparency.
On Wednesday, I asked Sharapova how many times she has been drug-tested this year. She said the International Tennis Federation could give me that figure at the end of the year, when it releases its annual numbers. Sharapova wouldn’t even give me a ballpark estimate.
“At the end of the year, you’ll be able to find out,” she said.
Who knows why she was so cagey. And some people don’t seem to be giving it a second thought. Venus Williams said she was too focused on her own tennis to consider Sharapova’s return, and Svetlana Kuznetsova said it was time to move on. “She did her time,” Kuznetsova said. “For her, it’s been tough.”
One thing that has made the road back to the Open less tough, Sharapova said, is the encouragement from fans who backed her during her doping troubles. “I had never thought of my influence on other people before,” she writes in her new book.
In Friday’s third round, she will meet one of those fans: the 18-year-old Kenin, a blond, Russian-born player who lives and trains in Florida, just as Sharapova did on her way up the tennis ladder, before her big fall.
In their match, it is no secret who will be the underdog. The kinder, softer Sharapova who arrived at the Open on Monday has since left the building.
Now, she said, “I just have to go out and take care of business.”