How Maria Sharapova’s comeback has turned into something of a nightmare

Maria Sharapova looking dejected

Maria Sharapova’s reinvention has not followed the script she would have dreamed about as she spent 15 months away from tennis following a failed drug test at the 2016 Australian Open.

Controversy, injuries and setbacks have been the story of the Russian’s tennis year since she returned to the court, with this week’s social media post highlighting the gravity of her latest fitness concerns.
Sharapova’s move to issue a public explanation to a fan for her late withdrawal from the Miami Open is the latest unfortunate entry in a comeback year that has been more agonised than glorious.

In fact, it could be argued that the controversy cloud whipped up by her failed dope test has yet to clear, with the past an obstacle to a bright future for the long-time golden girl of tennis.

It was in April of last year that Sharapova stepped back onto the tennis court for the first time since her suspension, with the captivating appeal of an athlete who has long since become so much more than a tennis player ensuring this was no ordinary comeback.

The controversy created by tournament directors handing Sharapova wildcards led to some uncomfortable press conference appearances, which clearly riled the five-time Grand Slam champion as she tried to move on from the darkest episode of her career.

That so many of her on-court competitors questioned Sharapova’s presence in tournaments she would not have qualified for due to her non-existent ranking added to the suspicion that her presence back in the ladies locker rooms of the game’s biggest events was not welcome, but this is nothing new.

Sharapova has never made it her business to befriend on-court rivals and even after her dramatic and very public fall from grace, she was unlikely to change that policy, yet it means she has spent the last year back on the WTA Tour without too many voices of support or allies to call upon.

Winning matches could have been Sharapova’s antidote as she looked to reshape her career heading into her 30s, but that goal has proved to be elusive as injuries inevitably affected her in a demanding sport that finds weak spots in athletes who have spent time away from the court for extended periods.

While her natural talents have allowed her to get her ranking back into the world’s top 50, Sharapova was given a reminder that her past will continue to haunt her back in January when her appearance in the parade of champions at the Australian Open was widely criticised by cynics who suggested her appearance was inappropriate as she made her return to Melbourne for the first time since he failed drug test.

An opening-round defeat the Qatar Open and a fourth-round loss to eventual champion Naomi Osaka at Indian Wells last week preceded her withdrawal from this week’s Miami Open with an arm injury that infuriated one fan who had bought tickets for the event just to watch her play.

Her message was heartfelt and must have been appreciated by her fan, but it also suggested her injury problems are a little deeper rooted than initially suspected. “I don’t usually have much interest in sharing my injuries because they come with the territory of being a professional athlete,” she wrote before explaining why she is absent from Miami this week.

“Besides numbing my left forearm 30 minutes before my first-round match at Indian Wells in order to get through the match without any recurring pain that I had had in past months, I also found out I had an air pocket in my lung.”

It was a detailed medical report from an A-list celebrity who has tried to keep so much of her life private since she became an overnight star by winning Wimbledon back in 2004. Back then, 17-year-old Sharapova appeared to be the future of tennis, yet her story has not been as golden as the player or her PR representatives would have hoped for in the years since.

While she has won all four Grand Slams and that achievement ensures she will be remembered as a tennis great, Sharapova will want more before her racquet is sent into retirement.

Being the world’s highest-earning female sports star for a decade and more has not given Sharapova the popularity rating she might have hoped for and she needs to show her humility on and off the court from this point forward to ensure her entry into tennis folklore is not as the superstar who failed a drug test.

Follow Kevin Palmer on Twitter @RealKevinPalmer