Bouchard broadside adds to intrigue of Sharapova return
"It's the best feeling in the world," said Maria Sharapova, whose comeback from a 15-month doping ban began last night with a straight-sets victory.
Yet it was typical of this murky saga that Sharapova's triumphant return should coincide with a damning assessment from Eugenie Bouchard.
In an online interview from the Istanbul Open, Bouchard offered the most critical position that we have yet heard from a fellow player.
"I don't think it's right," the Canadian said, when asked about Sharapova's comeback. "She's a cheater and I don't think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again. It's so unfair to all the other players who do it the right way and are true.
"I think from the WTA it sends the wrong message to young kids: 'cheat and we'll welcome you back with open arms'. I don't think that's right and she's definitely not someone I can say I look up to anymore because it's definitely ruined it for me a little bit."
Bouchard can probably look forward to protests and maybe even legal letters from the Sharapova camp, as the Court of Arbitration for Sport specifically ruled that the positive doping test had been caused inadvertently and so it is false to label Sharapova a 'cheater'.
Still, Bouchard gives the impression that she is as unconcerned about popularity in the locker-room as Sharapova herself, and she will not be easily intimidated.
Yesterday's match action unfolded at the Porsche-Arena in Stuttgart, where Italian veteran Roberta Vinci (34) was the woman charged with the task of derailing Sharapova's comeback.
Sharapova walked out ahead of Vinci, her face impassive, as the fans responded with respect but no great enthusiasm.
As most commentators had predicted, it was hardly the most polished of matches. And it made sense that Sharapova would come out like a woman who had been straining at the leash for months. That coiled-spring feeling led her to overhit numerous balls in the opening games, and handed Vinci a two-game lead at the start without having to do very much.
Again, there was a sense of froideur around the arena in the third game, when a Vinci forehand skimmed off the clay around the baseline. As umpire Marija Cicak jumped out of the chair to investigate, Sharapova mused over which mark to point at, then pointed at what seemed to be the wrong one. A few jeers rang down from the stands.
But Sharapova is not easily disconcerted. She was beginning to find her game by now, setting up a superiority that rested mainly on the first two strokes. Perhaps it should be no surprise that her serve was the outstanding element of her game, because that is the one shot that feels the same whether you are hitting it in practice or in a competitive match.
She served 11 aces, only three double-faults, and her motion seemed to have greater smoothness and balance than in the past.
On the return, meanwhile, Sharapova was prepared to throw everything at her opponent, either slamming winners at Vinci or missing the court entirely, but ultimately comfortable in her 7-5 6-3 victory.
And so, Sharapova and her grunts are once again part of the sights and sounds of the tour. And while the crowd offered only muted support, these sort of tournaments clearly feel that they need her star quality. The absence of other leading names such as Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova makes her an even more valuable asset.
If the match was challenging for Sharapova, the press conference was another awkward test.
"I am not an individual who is angry or bitter," she said, when asked about her overall reaction to the 15 months she has spent away from the match court.
"I was very present in my life. I was studying, I was working, I was forming relationships. As a woman, it was very liberating.
"I can't control what people say. The only thing I can control is what happens out there, and all I can do is walk the walk. I've done that by winning five Grand Slams and being No 1 in the world."
Asked if she had found a medical alternative to meldonium, which she said she had taken to deal with heart issues, she replied, "That information is between myself, the WTA and an orthopaedic doctor."
And on the subject of having to potentially go through qualifying to reach the main draw of Wimbledon and the French Open, she said: "I think I'd be prepared to play in the juniors if I had to. Everyone knows what a competitor I am."