Saturday 22 July 2017

'I've grown as a person' - Maria Sharapova makes winning return after 15-month doping ban

Russia's Maria Sharapova reacts after winning 7-5, 6-3 against Italy's Roberta Vinci at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart
Russia's Maria Sharapova reacts after winning 7-5, 6-3 against Italy's Roberta Vinci at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart
Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Maria Sharapova's controversial return to competitive tennis was a winning one as she overcame Roberta Vinci 7-5 6-3 in the first round of the Stuttgart Open.

The former world number one was back in action at a tournament she has won three times courtesy of a wildcard just 24 hours after the end of her 15-month suspension for failing a drugs test.

Sharapova tested positive for meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open and her original two-year ban was reduced on appeal.

Not all of her peers have welcomed her return but Sharapova received a good reception when she was introduced to the crowd and subsequently walked out on court alongside her opponent in Germany.

It took the 30-year-old time to get into her stride but generally it looked like the same old Sharapova, with relentless aggression and heavy hitting off both the forehand and backhand sides.

Vinci, a finalist at the 2015 US Open, won the toss and chose to serve and she made a solid start, taking the opening game with the loss of just one point before breaking Sharapova's first service game.

However, Sharapova broke back immediately. She needed five break points during a game lasting more than 10 minutes and displayed signs that she was now getting her eye in by hitting a string of big winners.

Sharapova had another break point in the seventh game but Vinci battled to hold her serve before the Russian levelled things up at 4-4 with her second service game to love.

By contrast, Vinci had been taken to deuce in every service game since her opener and the inevitable break eventually came to earn Sharapova a 6-5 lead and she then served it out - taking it on her second set point.

Sharapova started the second set with another break of serve, winning her fourth game in a row, and the signs were looking ominous for Vinci, although she did manage three break points against the Sharapova serve in the next game - but could take none of them.

Vinci ended her barren run with a hold of serve and did so again in her next service game to remain on the coat-tails of Sharapova at 4-3.

However, after Sharapova had easily held her serve again, the Italian was broken to love and the former world number one will now play fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova in the second round.

Asked what it was like being back out on the court in a competitive match, Sharapova told BT Sport: "It's the best feeling in the world, those first few moments before you enter the arena.

"It's been a stage of mine since I was a young girl and to know I'd be walking back on it was something special and I've been waiting for this for a long time.

''I didn't know when I'd be back and I did other things in my life. I still kept in shape but I did put the racket away for a while.

"It was quite a lot of time out, probably the most since I had shoulder surgery. It's my first match in a while and you try to get the rhythm again because you're still rusty but when you're in the moment you try to block everything out and compete, and I'm a competitor. That's when I'm at my best, when I just be me and compete.

"I need to play points and games and sets and matches - all matches are important for me. It's a journey that officially started for me again today and I look forward to playing as many matches as I can.

"I feel like in the last 15 months I have really grown as a person and I feel I had to step up and do that."

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