Maria Sharapova’s return to tennis off a 15-month doping suspension got off to a successful start with a hard-fought 7-5, 6-3 round-one victory over former U.S. Open finalist Roberta Vinci at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix on Wednesday. Sharapova, playing in her first competitive match since testing positive for Meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open, showed obvious signs of rust but grew in confidence as the match progressed. The wild-card entrant showcased her trademark intensity and mental strength throughout what was an emotional victory for the five-time Grand Slam champion.
“It’s the best feeling in the world to walk into such an arena and play in front of this fantastic Centre Court crowd,” an exuberant Sharapova said in her post-match press conference. “I’ve worked hard for this moment in the last few months. It’s an incredible feeling playing on this court again and I’m naturally relieved to have started with a win.”
After receiving a warm welcome from the sold-out Porsche Arena crowd, an understandably tight Sharapova fell behind by an early break at 2-0 after dropping serve in the second game. In typical fashion, however, the Russian came roaring back to send the match back on serve at 2-2 on her fifth break-point opportunity. Sharapova and Vinci exchanged holds of serve for the following six games as the business end of the opening set arrived at 5-5.
The three-time Stuttgart champion played a clutch return game to grab a crucial break on her first time of asking for 6-5. Set pointed arrived at 40-30 only for a fighting Vinci to save it and send the game to deuce. Sharapova’s relentless attack continued, though, and she powered her way to a second set point–one she would not waste to snatch the opening set in just under an hour.
Sharapova picked up right where she left off in the early stages of the second set, seizing the initial break in the first game of the set before going on to save three break points on her own serve to consolidate the lead for 2-0. The former world No. 1 rode that advantage to the eighth game as she and Vinci shared holds of serve for 4-3. Sharapova kept rolling, claiming a comfortable hold of serve to love for 5-3 to send herself a game from a spot in the second round and a first match win in 15 months.
Serving to stay in the match, the experienced Italian faltered–dropping serve to love as screams of “c’mon” roared from Sharapova’s side of the court to mark a landmark, comeback victory.
“I don’t know what type of expectations I had,” said a slightly relieved Sharapova. “I’ve been visualizing it and thinking about it, but I don’t know. I think I was very much in the moment today.
” I was really happy when I woke up this morning and I was smiling and I was excited about the opportunity of coming on site and practicing and then going and playing a match, something that I had for so many years in my career. I didn’t know what to expect but I knew that being out there was what I meant to be doing.
“I love being in situations where I have to figure out a way how to get through and how to win. I think that’s one of the things that the sports teaches you from a young age. It puts you in certain positions where you have to adjust, so you have to keep your focus, keep playing the same way, know what you did right to get there, or if you are down you have to turn around as quickly as possible.
“So it’s a jigsaw puzzle,” Sharapova added, referring to the slicing and dicing of Vinci. “I missed that feeling.”
One of the biggest contributing factors to Sharapova’s straight-set victory was an improved, powerful serve, which she used to blast 11 aces.
“I’ve been working on all aspects of my game and the serve was definitely one of them,” she noted. “I didn’t change it too much, maybe a few things in the rhythm but not extremely. Getting the ball toss more consistent is certainly one of the goals.
“I trained quite intensively since January but it’s been in different phases. It started quite physical. I spent a lot of time on the track and in the gym and then I moved on to the court and then I started playing matches in the last few weeks. So, it’s kind of been a transition and you have to pace yourself and really understand what you need in that moment and kind of build your body and see where it is after a while when you don’t play. I also took a few months off last year and I didn’t play at all for a few months. So, it’s a process, and of course you want to have that transition and a smooth transition.”
Up next is fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova, against whom Sharapova owns a 6-0 lifetime record.