By Barry Janoff
January 12, 2017: The last time Maria Sharapova was seen in a pro tennis match was during the 2016 Australian Open last January.
The next time will be in April at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany. The comeback will have immediate marketing impact as Porsche (pictured) is one of her partners.
Sharapova has been off the pro circuit via an original two-year ban, reduced this past summer to 15 months, due to a failed drug test taken during the Open for the anti-ischemic drug Mildronate — which she admitted to taking for more than ten years and continued to do so after it was banned because of what she called an "oversight" of not knowing about the change in status regarding the drug.
The 29-year-old has spent her time going to Harvard Business School, attended business meetings for endorsement partners and companies in which she has invested, appeared at exhibition matches, written articles, worked out and traveled.
She was ranked No. 5 when she was suspended but was taken off the WTP rankings after missing not only tournaments and Grand Slam events but also the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Now, with so much time away from sanctioned competition, will the five-time Grand Slam singles winner and former No. 1 player in the world be ready to rise to the top of the WTA rankings again?
"Do I think she can be Top 10? Absolutely," said Chris Evert, 18-time Grand Slam singles winner, former world No. 1 and now an analyst with ESPN. "It’s so close among the top 20, the top 30 players. There’s no big gap.
"Can she be Top 5 again? Why not. How can you count her out. She’s one of the most mentally tough players, along with Serena Williams, out there. She plays every point like it’s match point," said Evert.
Some see Sharapova, who lives in the U.S. but was born in and still claims Russia as her homeland, as being a microcosm of a larger doping problem among Russian athletes. More than 100 of that nation’s athletes were barred from the 2016 Summer Games by the International Olympic Committee and numerous others have either been banned from competition or stripped of previously won titles following details of failed drug tests.
This week, members of the National Anti-Doping Organizations, part of the World Anti-Doping Agency, released a statement that called for a blanket ban on all Russian athletes until Russian officials prove they have created and implemented a credible anti-doping system.
The move was based in large part on the McLaren Report, released last month by WADA, that more than 1,000 Russian athletes in some 30 sports were "involved in or benefitted from an institutional conspiracy of doping" as part of a government sanctioned effort and subsequent coverup dating back to at least 2011 "on an unprecedented scale."
Evert, speaking during a media call on Wednesday to support ESPN’s coverage of the Australian Open, opined that the suspension was, for Sharapova, a positive in some ways.
"She has had a real wake-up call," said Evert. "I feel as if she is out of her bubble now. She went back to school for a bit, get got better in her business, she made more appearances, she’s socializing more with her friends. I feel like it has been a silver lining, this whole suspension."
One area in Sharapova’s life that took a major hit was income.
Over the past 12-14 months, Serena Williams surpassed her as the world’s highest paid women’s athlete, with Williams taking in some $20 million from endorsements and $8.9 million in winnings.
Sharapova earned $20 million in previously signed endorsements but just $1.9 million in winnings. Due to her suspension, she appeared in no new marketing efforts and signed no new endorsement deals, and was even suspended, though not dropped, by Nike and Tag Heuer.
Sharapova’s deals also include Porsche, Avon, Evian and Head, in addition to investments including her Sugarpova line of sweets and Supergoop beauty care.
Her popularity on social media remains strong, She has nearly 4.9 million followers on Twitter, 2.2 million followers on Instagram and just shy of 15 million on Facebook.
If she stays healthy, Sharapova’s first Grand Slam would be the French Open at Roland Garros, May 11-28, where she won in 2012 and 2014.
But Serena Williams is also looking to add to her Grand Slam total of 22, as well as a return to the No. 1 spot she yielded this past season to Angelique Kerber. Head-to-head, Williams is 19-2 versus Sharapova, according to the WTA.
Evert doesn't envision Williams yielding to Sharapova or anyone else on the circuit.
"It’s motivation for her (that) she's ranked No. 2," said Evert of Williams. "This is a woman with pride and ego and used to being No. 1, used to being the queen at the top. I'm sure that's going to be motivation for her, not liking to see another name up there.
"So if she's healthy, she's happy . . . I don't think it's a matter of if she's going to win another Grand Slam, I think it's when, and I think it will happen this year.”
As for Sharapova, Evert expects to see a fierce competitor on the court but perhaps a bit mellower one off of it.
“When she returns in April she will be a little different,” said Evert. “She will be more open. Friendlier. More evolved as a person. This is just my feeling from what I’m hearing when she speaks at appearances and during tennis exhibitions.
"She might come back looking different," said Evert. "She has been working on her fitness. She might have a little more variety in her game. Life for Maria Sharapova is looking really good. On the court and off. The other players will be fine. But it depends on her. If she comes back with an open mind and friendlier, the other players will welcome her back."
Sharapova Won’t Get Call On Olympics, Open After Suspension
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