Maria Sharapova defiant not to let negative press sully return

She has won the opening two matches of her return at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart this week

Maria Sharapova

Image: Daniel Maurer/dpa

It is a rare occurrence when an athlete brings the world of sport to a halt on the same day their doping ban ends, but Maria Sharapova is far from ordinary.

The anticipated return of the former world No.1 attracted over 200 journalists to descend upon the Porsche Arena, venue of where Sharapova staged her comeback. She managed to live up to the hype yesterday with a straight sets triumph over former US Open runner-up Roberta Vinci. It was a picture perfect return by the Russian, who thrives on challenges.

"I love being in situations when I have to figure out a way of how to get through it and how to win," she responded when asked what she missed the most about competitive sport.

Sharapova’s return comes at a time when women’s tennis is seeking a revival. World No.1 Serena Williams is taking a sabbatical from competitive sport due to pregnancy.

Meanwhile, other players on the tour are struggling for consistency. In one respect it is a worrying scenario that one of the most popular women’s sports is relying on the return on a player from a drugs ban. Fortunately for them, Sharapova has the brain and appeal to maintain popularity amid the controversy.

"Words and quotes and articles is not what matters in life. I've learnt that very well in the past year," she explained.

"At the end of the day what matters is that I'm on the court. I do my job and my job consists of practising."

Maria Sharapova returns a shot during her victory over Robert Vinci of Italy at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart this week. Image: Daniel Maurer/DPA/PA Images

There is no doubt that the 30-year-old is the star attraction in Stuttgart for both fans and the media. Quite an achievement for a player participating in a tournament featuring eight out of the nine best active players in the world.

Still, the critics continue their arguments. Tennis has been split in recent weeks over the decision to award wildcards to players convicted of doping. One of the most vocal was Eugenie Bouchard, who labelled the former world No.1 a "cheater".

"I don't think that's right,"Bouchard said of her return. "She's a cheater and so to me, 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. It ruined it for me a little bit."

How does she do it?

Despite the controversy and name calling, Sharapova continues to have a loyal fan base. The question is how?

The answer goes beyond her sporting achievements. Throughout her career, Sharapova has turned herself into a brand. Her numerous business ventures such as her own confectionery business has made her a powerhouse.

Forbes.com previously declared Sharapova ‘the most marketable female athlete in the world’ over an 11-year period. Her agent Max Eisenbud once said she has a ‘PhD in sports marketing without even attending college.’ Even now she continues to have sponsorship deals with brands such as Nike, Porsche, Evian and Head.

"I went to school for a little bit, I was working a little bit, growing my business and I had a pretty normal life for a while," she said when asked how she spent the time during her suspension. 

In 2016 she earned an estimated $21.9 million, second to only Serena Williams. On social media she has 15 million Facebook likes and 5.61 million Twitter followers.

Focus on Grand Slams

Now switching her attention to the court, an unranked Sharapova is bidding to return to grand slam tennis. To do so at the French Open, she may need a wildcard.

Roland Garros officials have kept silent on if they will reward a pass with an official announcement expected on May 16th. There is also a chance the Russian could play in the qualifying, a prospect she is ready for.

"I think I be prepared to play in the juniors if I had to. I think everybody in this room [the media room] knows what a competitor I am and I don’t take anything for granted."

Sharapova has continued her winning return by defeating Ekaterina Makarova in the second round at the Stuttgart Open on Thursday. The win elevates her up to a ranking of roughly 379th, pretty impressive for somebody winning just two matches.

Inevitability, Sharapova will rise back to the top and will continue to be criticised. Still, the defiant Russian has proven that she can turn a disaster into a triumph. Sharapova’s return isn’t just one for the world of sport to watch. It is also one the world of business can learn from.

Love her or hate her, Sharapova is here to stay.