Maria Sharapova made her long-awaited and somewhat controversial return to tennis last week at the tournament in Stuttgart, Germany. The five-time Grand Slam champion was back on the tour after a 15-month suspension, and not only received a wildcard into the main draw of a mid-level event but had her first-round match delayed until her suspension was officially over.
She drew a mixed reaction from the large crowds that watched her matches, as she beat three players ranked inside the top 70 – #36 Roberta Vinci in the first round, #41 Ekaterina Makarova in the second round, and #65 Anett Kontaveit in the quarterfinals – before bowing out to #17 Kristina Mladenovic in the semifinals.
But the reception from her fellow players has continued to be pretty harsh, though a few understand why she is being awarded with wildcards into these tournaments. The most vocal opinion of the week came from Eugenie Bouchard, who stated that she thought Sharapova should be banned from returning to tennis for life because she’s a cheater. Bouchard also said that she lost all respect for Sharapova and that the WTA is sending the wrong message to young kids by greeting the former world #1 with open arms.
Many players might feel the same way about the WTA promoting Sharapova’s return, but none of them have come out with such a bold statement like Bouchard did. But Genie may have another reason why she decided to pop off in such an outlandish way.
The return of Sharapova not only annoys Bouchard, but also has a direct effect on the young Canadian’s career, which is probably why Bouchard thinks Maria should never be allowed back on a tennis court.
In the time that Sharapova has been off the tour, Bouchard has gone from the next face of women’s tennis and a budding superstar in sports (especially in Canada) to being totally forgotten about and a running punch line to tennis fans. The most common joke is if you want to see Genie at a tournament you better get there as soon as the gates open on the very first day because after about an hour or so her match will be over.
Bouchard will likely need the wildcards that Sharapova is being gifted sooner rather than later. Bouchard’s ranking has been on a steady decline all season long, and she is currently outside of the top 60 and has been playing in Futures tournaments (which are normally for up-and-coming players whose rankings are not high enough to make the qualifying round of events) to try to get in some matches. Bouchard can get into main draws, but she is just 2-6 since the Australian Open, with both of those wins coming in a Futures event (she lost in the quarterfinals to #896 Victoria Duval 6-0, 6-3).
Although Sharapova entered Stuttgart with no official ranking, it could be just a matter of time before the two players are ranked close to each other. Sharapova’s semifinal run vaulted her up to #262 in the world, and she could make it into the direct draw at Wimbledon with similar results in her next two events as the top 104 players automatically qualify for the majors.
By mid-summer, Sharapova could be climbing into the top 100 while Bouchard could be falling even further down the rankings and into obscurity. At this point the only time anyone talks about Bouchard is if she’s on the cover of another magazine or if she runs her mouth and makes silly comments like she did last week. No one is talking about her tennis, because it only lasts about an hour or so per tournament. Sharapova may be a “cheater”, but she’s at least winning matches and seemingly used her time off to improve her game.
Whether you like her or not, Sharapova has always been able to balance her off-the-court fame with her on-court success. Many of us thought that Bouchard would be the heir apparent to Sharapova, both on the court and off it. There is no denying their physical attributes have made them two of the most popular female tennis players, but the younger one still has a lot to learn, and she should look no further than the person she ridiculously criticized to find the answers she should be looking for.
Written by: Adam Belue (@albinomamba44)