Money talks as Sharapova is welcomed back to tennis after drug ban – by everyone except fellow players her agent slams as ‘journeymen’

Lack of remorse shown by the player and her camp as she returns to action this week leaves a bad taste in the mouth

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 4:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 April, 2017, 7:49pm

You have to admire the chutzpah of Maria Sharapova and her associates.

The Russian tennis star will be back in action on Wednesday this week, the first day she is eligible to play after a 15-month doping ban.

Rather than fight her way through the qualifiers as she should have to – the former world No.1 no longer has a ranking after her absence – organisers of the WTA Stuttgart Grand Prix have handed her a wildcard.

In a freak coincidence, the tournament is sponsored by Porsche, for whom Sharapova has been a “brand ambassador” since 2013. Though the German car company said at the time of Sharapova’s ban for taking meldonium it would be “suspending” its association with the player, it seems they’re more than happy to have her back behind the wheel.

Sharapova has shown zero remorse for her ban; quite the opposite as she has repeatedly blamed the International Tennis Federation for not telling her that the drug had been added to the list of prohibited substances.

It seems most in a sport desperate for stars are ready to forgive and forget – apart from her fellow players.

Even the official Twitter account of the Women’s Tennis Association posted last month “’Tennis needs Maria!’ @mariasharapova’s rivals are looking forward to her return.” That was hastily deleted after being treated with scorn, not least by tour pro Alize Cornet, who replied “excuse me ...??”

As well as being a magnificent player, Sharapova is a world-famous beautiful celebrity. No wonder tournaments and sponsors are desperate to have her back.

The Italian Open in Rome next month has also given her a wild card. Now the pressure is on organisers of the upcoming French Open to decide whether they opt for principles or greed. They will make a decision on May 15 and no-one will be surprised if money talks – especially in the absence of the pregnant Serena Williams, the only player with similar star power.

Understandably, many of Sharapova’s rivals on tour are not too happy about her swift comeback, with Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki among those expressing their concern.

Here’s how Max Eisenbud, her agent, responded to that criticism, in a statement tweeted by US tennis writer Ben Rothenberg on Saturday:

“All those ‘journeyman’ players like Radwanska and Wozniacki who have never won a slam and the next generation passing them. They are smart to try to keep Maria out of Paris.

“NO Serena, NO Maria, NO Vika [Victoria Azarenka], NO Petra [Kvitova], it’s their last chance to win a slam.

“But they never read the CAS report and they never read paragraph 100 and 101. So they have no clue.”

Eisenbud was referring to the Court of Arbitration for Sport appeal finding that reduced Sharapova’s ban to 15 months from two years. The final paragraphs of the report declared that Sharapova did not intend to cheat by taking meldonium, which some believe improves physical and mental endurance. CAS’s ruling was celebrated wildly and gracelessly by Sharapova’s camp.

With the kind of attitude shown by Eisenbud, it’s easy to understand why Sharapova is said to have no friends among her fellow players, even before the ban.

Who cares when you have plenty of chums in the corporate world, not to mention some 23 million social media followers to whom you can market products?

Nike, Porsche, Evian and Head are all back on board – watchmaker Tag Heuer did not renew a previous deal – and Sharapova’s chocolate brand has just been accepted into Kroger, the biggest US grocery chain, and 7-Eleven. “We hit a home run on chocolate,” Eisenbud said in a fawning piece on Forbes about his client’s terrific business brain. “It’s been a game changer for us.”

Sharapova is, unsurprisingly, not bothered about criticism from players she never talks to and routinely beat before her ban.

“That is the least of my concerns,” she told Stern magazine ahead of returning to the German tournament she has won three out of four times. “I haven’t wasted a single thought on it. I know that I am respected in my field. I see it in how my opponents play against me.”

And as for remorse? Forget it. She even has a memoir coming out called Unstoppable. Maybe Brass Neck would be a better title.