If there’s one thing about the WTA’s annual awards, it’s that they’re consistent.
Indian Wells, Stuttgart and Acapulco have once again proved most popular with the players in 2017.
The three events – in the Premier Mandatory, Premier and International categories, respectively, have won the “Tournament of the Year” awards, as voted on by the players, for the fourth consecutive year.
In the “Premier 5” category (which includes Canada, Cincinnati, Wuhan, and Doha/Dubai on a rotating basis), the winner was the Internazionali BNL d’Italia in Rome, which also won in 2016.
On the off-court side, the Czechs cleaned up.
The Peachy Kellmayer Player Service Award went to Lucie Safarova for the fourth straight year.
Notably, Safarova has served on the Player Council since 2009.
The Karen Krantzcke Sportsmanship award – once again – went to Petra Kvitova.
“I know I have won this award several times, but this year is extra special for me because I missed the first half of the season,” Kvitova said in a statement. “We are fighters, we are opponents, but on the other hand we are colleagues as well. So for me, the biggest thing is respect.”
Maria Sharapova came to Stuttgart and got just about everything she wanted and needed, in her first tournament back after a 15-month doping ban.
But one opportunity did slip through her fingers.
With a win against Kristina Mladenovic in the Stuttgart semi-final Saturday, Sharapova’s ranking would have zoomed from zero to inside the top 180 in just four days. There would have been no need to bite her nails as she waited for the live wild-card announcement the French Federation says is still 17 days away. With the deadline for the qualifying draw Monday, she would have earned her way in on her own merit.
The 23-year-old, also unseeded, defeated Sharapova 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 in two hours and 38 minutes to advance to the final against wild card German Laura Siegemund.
“That was kind of a thrilling match. Maria is a tough player, very aggressive from the first shot. I was struggling a bit with my serve and return. The balls were flying all over the place. I try to find good adjustments,” Mladenovic said during her post-match interview. “Not an easy match, but just tried to fight in there. In the end, it paid off.”
An impressive return
Sharapova tested herself against all different types of opponents in what has to be considered a wildly successful return to the circuit this week.
Roberta Vinci of Italy, a seasoned veteran in her mid-30s, has a variety of game that creates some difficulties on the clay. Straight sets.
Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova was second former top-10 player. But she had taken only one set from Sharapova in six previous meetings. In this one, Sharapova would have been the favorite despite her layoff. After a golden opportunity lost by Makarova late in the first set, it was over.
Sharapova’s next opponent was a rarity: a player she had never played. Although qualifier Anett Kontaveit of Estonia had been on a roll, it was another straight-sets victory.
Against Mladenovic, Sharapova faced a significant challenge. She was playing her fourth match in four days, after playing zero matches in the previous 16 months. Mladenovic has been playing well the last three months. She’s one of the rare female players possessing a thunderous first serve. And she also is one of the few who blossoms rather than shrivels when the spotlight is on.
Mladenovic is known as a “big occasion” player. That’s shorthand for “can’t consistently win during the boring, weekly grind of the smaller events where few people are watching.” Until she recently entered the top 20, her singles ranking had not been reflective of her talent.
Kiki Time in Stuttgart
This was a “big occasion” by every metric. It was chance to get to a Premier-level final with a full house on hand, many more watching on television and a star opponent on the other side drawing the tennis spotlight right to them.
That’s Kiki Time. She had already proved she was all in when she upset world No. 2 and defending Stuttgart champion Angelique Kerber in straight sets in the second round.
There wasn’t Mladenovic could do early on as Sharapova served brilliantly and played clean, aggressive tennis. She was quickly down a set and a break. But slowly, she got her bearings. Mladenovic began putting more returns in play, staying in the rallies longer.
Finally, Sharapova’s form dropped. It was likely to happen at some point with so much emotional and physical energy being expended over the week. The serve, which had been an inconsistent weapon before the suspension but an impressive one this week, let her down. So did the forehand, to some extent.
But Mladenovic deserves a lion’s share of the credit.
If there is a glaring weakness in her game, it’s the second serve, a stroke that can often be as much about bravoura under pressure as it is about technique. But she shrugged off the 11 double-faults caused in part by the threat of Sharapova’s return. Sharapova’s second serve kept her in the match – until it no longer did.
New boss, same as the old boss
As the Russian’s return date neared and she trained intensely but privately, you almost hoped she would come back from her suspension and shock the world, somehow. How mind-blowing would it have been had she come back… without the grunt?
Seriously, though, you could hope a player would benefit from so much unexpected time off in the middle of her career, and come back with some new weapons given the “luxury” of all those months to work on them.
There are examples of this on the men’s side. Marin Cilic came back from a much shorter doping suspension having added a big weapon with the help of then-coach Goran Ivanisevic. He finally had a serve powerful enough to match his size. It was a big reason the Croat won the 2014 US Open.
And then there is Roger Federer.
Federer came back from six months off with a significantly improved topspin backhand. Once considered an attackable area, Federer has won three big tournaments since his return – and has beaten Rafael Nadal three times.
Before the match, Mladenovic said she didn’t this was the case with Sharapova. “I think she is still mastering her ‘A game’. I didn’t see anything new, I think she is just playing her game really well, like she did in the past,” she said.
It appears Sharapova has tinkered with her serve a little; she mentioned in a press conference earlier this week it was a matter of a few timing adjustments. The ball toss appears a little lower, and she lands into the court a bit more.
But the arm angle looks the same. And the velocity she never quite regained after the long-ago shoulder surgery is still MIA. Sharapova served well this week, but it was all about location. For the most part, she rarely cracked 165 km/hour. Mladenovic, on the other hand, hit close to 190 km/hour on numerous occasions.
Tactically, Mladenovic superior
The final two points of the match perfectly summed up Sharapova’s tactical limitations.
At 30-30, she came to the net on a deep approach shot to Mladenovic’s backhand. The first volley was a dreadful attempt at a backhand drop volley. It just hung up in the middle of the court and gave Mladenovic plenty of time to track it down. The second volley should have been put away, but Sharapova’s feet didn’t move. Mladenovic deftly put away a slice forehand.
On match point, Mladenovic again asked the question with one of her many crosscourt backhand drop shots. Sharapova got there, tried to respond in kind. It’s another shot she still doesn’t have in her arsenal. Mladenovic had the all the space in the world to hit the final shot, the victory shot.
The fact that Sharapova’s game basically stood still during her absence is a wasted opportunity she’s not likely to get again. But from all evidence this week, her old game is more than enough to climb the rankings quickly and get back to where she was.
With the win, Mladenovic can aspire to a top-16 seed at her home Grand Slam next month. She’s nearly there already. And with first-round losses at both Madrid and Rome a year ago, she has everything to gain before descending upon Paris.
Maria Sharapova’s return to the court after a 15-month suspension had to be an emotional moment for her. But she maintained her poise both during the match and in a post-match press conference with an overflow crowd that even included some of the British tabloids.
On Thursday – the day after – it seemed like business as usual.
Sharapova disposed of countrywoman Ekaterina Makarova 7-5, 6-1 and moved into the Stuttgart quarter-finals. It was a match that went all one way after Makarova blew a golden opportunity late in the first set.
All of a sudden, only a qualifier ranked No. 73 stands in the way of her reaching the semis of a Premier event in her first tournament back.
What is clear after just two days is that the 30-year-old will be as defiant and on message during her comeback as she was during the 15 months she was out of the game.
I’m back – deal with it
She’s not going to play the contrite, convicted “doper” who must somehow “prove to the world” that she feels terribly, that she’ll never do it again, that’s she’s “grateful to get a second chance” and that she’ll do anything to to be forgiven and get back into people’s good graces.
That’s what some people want to see. As if it would change anything. Even if she did it, there still would be people who will forgive her anything and people who will forgive her nothing.
By the way, if that’s what she needs to do, she’ll do it. Sharapova said Wednesday night she’d play juniors if she had to. But not because someone thinks she should, and not for the reasons they think she should.
The California Russian has been a sphinx throughout her career. She freely shows her competitive emotions on court. Off court, she is composed and controlled and professional and always on her guard. She protects her personal life fiercely; as a result she has managed to actually have a full one. No one in her workplace really knows her at all. Perhaps it’s that mystery some hoped would be revealed by the extraordinary circumstances of the last 15 months.
It won’t. She’s back. And she’s exactly the same. Maybe a little more ticked off and motivated. But the same. As if she’d never been gone.
You can ask, she won’t answer
The media was not particularly rough on Sharapova Wednesday night after her first match. There were two types of questions. There were the ones about the match and how wonderful it was to be back. Those were the slam dunks. The others were variations on a theme: just how contrite does she intend to be?
One question most thought she might be open about was about her medications. If the meldonium for which she served the ban was so crucial to her heart and well-being, wouldn’t she have to find a substitute? A legitimate question, given how much emphasis was put on all the reasons she needed to take so much of it in the first place.
It’s not happening. “That information is between myself, the Women’s Tennis Association and the orthopaedic doctor I am working with now,” she said.
Maybe some people hoped the Sharapova who returned this week would be some softer, gentler version of her former public self. Would she suddenly extend a friendly hand to the other women in the locker room, after an entire career of treating it as a workplace, not a sorority? Which, by the way, it is – a workplace, where everyone is after the same job promotions and salary raises.
“I can’t control what people say. To have nicer things to say about me in press conferences, what will that change to my tennis?” she said, answering a question with a question.
If you won’t join ’em, beat ’em
Had she participated in more locker room gossip sessions or perhaps gone on vacation to the Maldives with a couple of her fellow Russian players, would her rivals not be saying all these mean things about her now? What an amusing notion.
“I don’t have anything to say – I am way above that,” was her response.
She’s not above it, but it’s a no-win question. Amid all the social-media blather that oozed Bouchard’s way about how the struggling Canadian had “no right” to say that given her lack of a major titles or that she’d be better served focusing on resurrecting her own game, there were quite a few people who agreed with her.
Sharapova knows she’ll never win them over anyway. And again, they have zero effect on what she shows up at work every day to do. Win tennis matches. Make money. Make her sponsors happy. Go home to her real life.
Dropping like WTA flies
The top active player on Tour, Angelique Kerber, went down meekly in her first match in Stuttgart. No. 5 seed Garbiñe Muguruza also flamed out early. So did No. 6 Johanna Konta. And No. 7 Agnieszka Radwanska. The only remaining seeds (No. 2 Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 Simona Halep) are not in Sharapova’s half of the draw.
You can’t attribute the mass withering on the Stuttgart vine solely to Sharapova’s formidable presence. The WTA Tour has been like this all season long. Now, with the street-fighting Sharapova back in the ring, the withering will be all the more evident. No wonder they’d rather have her in the qualifying.
From Sharapova’s point of view, that’s not her problem, either.
Whichever side of the fence you’re on in terms of how bad her doping offence was, or whether you think she should claw her way back from the bottom to pay the price for it or not (more than the 15 months of career and millions she’s already lost), she’s just going to keep doing what she’s doing.
The draw for next week’s Stuttgart draw was one of the most anticipated in a long time, because it’s where Maria Sharapova will return to action.
And the “winner” is … Italy’s Roberta Vinci.
The veteran Italian, whose best surface is the red clay, will be the first player Sharapova faces in her return to tennis after serving a 15-month doping suspension. That will take place Wednesday, the first day Sharapova is eligible to return.
Sharapova has a 2-0 head-to-head against Vinci, both on hard courts. But that history is of the most ancient kind. The two encounters took place in 2007 and 2012. Clearly they have a once-every-five-years kind of relationship.
Vinci, 34, isn’t in a great patch. She lost in the first round of Miami to Taylor Townsend. And she lost in the first round of the WTA event in Biel, Switzerland to Kristyna Pliskova. She is not playing Fed Cup for Italy this weekend.
Sharapova’s 2nd round could be a ripper
If Sharapova can win that, the second-round match could be … fascinating. She would play the winner of a match between No. 7 seed Agnieszka Radwanska and Ekaterina Makarova.
Just 24 hours ago, Radwanska was asked by the Polish media how she felt about the awarding of wild cards to Sharapova – particularly into the French Open. That’s a question that will only be decided May 15.
“This kind of entry into the tournament should be available only for players who were dropped in the ranking due to injury, illness or other random accident. Not for those suspended for doping. Maria should rebuild her career in a different way, beginning with smaller events,” Radwanska said, as reported by Reuters. “She wouldn’t have a chance for (a wildcard) from my hands (if I was a tournament director).”
Radwanska is hardly the first WTA player to publicly come out against the awarding of wild cards to the former No. 1, who will not have a ranking of any kind when she returns. Unlike an injured player who returns with a protected ranking they can use during their comeback, she starts from zero.
But Radwanska’s quotes sparked a reaction from longtime Sharapova agent Max Eisenbud of IMG, who doesn’t speak publicly that often.
With her return days away, Sharapova's agent Max Eisenbud decided to break his silence after these comments from Radwanska. Here he goes: pic.twitter.com/WXUVxooeK5
Needless to say, Eisenbud’s comments set the online tennis world afire.
If the two do meet in the second round in Stuttgart, well, the popcorn is popping as we speak. Sharapova may not be taking names, but she knows too well what people say about her. As if she weren’t already motivated through the roof to be back. This just puts it right over the top.