Maria Sharapova not counting cost of defeat as empire prospers
The first clue was her trainers: bright white Nikes with a green swoosh and 'Maria' monogrammed in gold cursive.
Walking on to the SW19 practice courts on Monday, the message was clear: the Sharapova show was back in town.
Yesterday, the sound of her 110 decibel grunts once again rang out across the courts of Wimbledon (although quite why they should be considered any more offensive than a man constantly plucking his shorts out of his backside, I have no idea).
It is 14 years since the Russian caused one of the biggest upsets in tennis, beating defending champion Serena Williams in straight sets to take the title aged 17 and won the crowds' hearts by trying to phone her mother from Centre Court.
Now, aged 31 and seeded 24th, Sharapova's latest bid to relive past glories came to an quick end as she was beaten yesterday by her fellow-Russian Vitalia Diatchenko.
The qualifier hit back after seeming down and out in the second set to win 6-7, 7-6, 6-4 as night fell.
Sharapova, who had not played here for three years, soon looked tense, shooting pained looks at her team, biting her lip and at one point seeming close to tears as her early confidence seemed to drain away.
It is her single-mindedness that has long characterised Sharapova, not known for being the most popular player on tour.
Last year, Canada's Genie Bouchard said: "She's a cheater and I don't think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play again."
"I don't feel sorry at all for Sharapova and I don't miss her on the tour," commented Slovakian player Dominika Cibulkova.
"She's a totally unlikeable person. Arrogant, conceited and cold."
Yet, SW19 had missed Sharapova and Court No 2 welcomed her and her huge entourage - from coach Thomas Hogstedt, to Etonian multi-millionaire boyfriend Alexander Gilkes, founder of online auction house Paddle8 and former husband of Misha Nonoo (who reportedly set up Meghan Markle and Prince Harry).
But Max Eisenbud, Sharapova's long-time agent - a controversial figure and the man credited with helping amass her commercial fortune - was the most vocal, shouting "come on baby" and "can you hit the ball?" when she slapped one into the net.
Diatchenko received rapturous applause for her underdog fightback but the court rippled with disappointment that Sharapova had not been able to grasp the nettle.
Yet, all is not lost. Seeing the Wimbledon fortnight through will be her 'Candy Lounge' pop-up, selling her Sugarpova brand of confectionery after a two-year absence, in a new location on Church Road. Sugarpova is sold in 22 countries.
Sponsors Nike, Porsche and Evian have stuck by Sharapova and she is estimated to earn around £14.5m a year, though reportedly falling to £4.5m during her ban and causing her to drop off the Forbes athletes' rich list.
During her suspension, Sharapova published a memoir, studied at Harvard Business School and cultivated her social media profile as a businesswoman. She has amassed 3.2m followers on Instagram and 8m on Twitter.
It is these ventures that have won her some grudging respect from her fellow players and shown her a potential alternative life outside the tennis bubble. Perhaps she might take comfort in this, as she licks her wounds over the coming days.
Meanwhile, Petra Kvitova, one of the tournament favourites, made a shock early exit, losing in three sets to the impressive, unseeded Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
Kvitova threw away three break points at 3-2 in the first set and it would prove significant as the Belarusian Sasnovich broke her in the next game, snatching the lead and eventually winning the set.
Two-time Wimbledon champion and eighth seed Kvitova fought back to even things up in the second set but fell apart in the decider, going down 6-4, 4-6, 6-0. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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