STUTTGART, Germany: Maria Sharapova marked her return from a 15-month doping ban on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) with a rusty 7-5, 6-3 win over Roberta Vinci in Stuttgart, describing victory as the “best feeling in the world”.
Sharapova, the former world No.1 and five-time Grand Slam champion, brushed off a nervous start to eventually claim a convincing win on her controversial comeback having tested positive for meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open.
“It’s the best feeling in the world to walk out (on court), it’s been a stage of mine since I was a young girl and it was very special,” said Sharapova who celebrated her win with a succession of double fist pumps and a broad smile before blowing kisses to all corners of the Porsche Arena.
“I have been waiting for this a long time.”
Sharapova was given a wildcard to play in Stuttgart, where she has been champion three times, a move which drew a barrage of criticism from rivals who believed she was receiving preferential treatment.
She fired 39 winners and 11 aces past 34-year-old Vinci, one of the Russian’s many critics.
After receiving warm applause from the crowd, which included one fan who held up a Russian flag bearing the words “Welcome back Maria,” Sharapova, dressed in an orange top and lilac-colored dress, initially struggled.
She quickly found herself 2-0 down before she broke back to level at 2-0.
As was to be expected after her long break, Sharapova laboured to find her shots and Vinci profited from several mistakes.
But the 30-year-old Russian started to move her Italian opponent around the court and found her range with a pair of aces.
Sharapova finally broke the Italian in the 11th game and then held her service, converting her second set point in exactly an hour.
Vinci had lost to Sharapova in both their previous meetings and the Italian trailed from 2-0 down in the second set on Wednesday.
Sharapova quickly moved to 5-3 ahead up with an ace and extended her domination in the following game, racing into a 40-0 lead and converted her first match point for victory in one hour, 45 minutes.
Sharapova will now play fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova in Thursday’s second-round.
“It’s going to be tough, but every match I play now is important for me,” she said.
Vinci had been one of the most out-spoken critics of Sharapova before the tie but she sought to draw a line under the controversy after her defeat.
“I lost. She had a wildcard. She won. She’s happy, I’m so sad, but that’s it,” said the Italian.
Sharapova has also been granted wildcards into the Madrid and Rome tournaments and she will need similar generosity from Roland Garros if she is to make the main draw of the French Open, where she is a two-time champion.
On Wednesday, the French Tennis Federation repeated that they will not make a decision until next month.
Bouchard urges life ban for ‘cheater’ Sharapova
Eugenie Bouchard attacked Sharapova as a “cheater” over her return from a drugs ban and suggested the Russian should be kicked out of tennis for life.
Bouchard said the Women’s Tennis Association was sending the wrong message in allowing the five-time Grand Slam-winner to come back from her 15-month suspension.
Russia’s Sharapova — the world’s highest-paid female athlete for more than a decade until last year, according to Forbes — won on Wednesday on her comeback after testing positive for meldonium.
“I don’t think that’s right. 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,” Canada’s Bouchard, the world No.59, told TRT World in Istanbul.
“It’s so unfair to all the other players who do it the right way and are true. So I just think the WTA sends the wrong message to young kids: you know, cheat and we’ll welcome you back with open arms.
“So I don’t think that’s right. She’s not someone I can say I look up to any more because it’s definitely ruined it for me a little bit.”
Sharapova, 30, has pleaded that she had been taking meldonium for medical reasons for 10 years and didn’t know it had been added to the list of banned substances last year.