Sharapova finds supporters, critics over shortened ban

Whenever north of $1 million is raised for a charitable cause via serves and volleys — which is what the World TeamTennis Smash Hits at Caesars Palace raised for the Elton John AIDS Foundation last year — it’s a pretty big deal.

This year’s Smash Hits, played on a multi-hued outdoors court at Caesars in the literal shadow of Donny & Marie’s giant faces Monday, is expected to raise similar funds. Which is great for Elton John’s foundation, and for people who suffer from HIV and AIDS.

But there also was news made at Smash Hits.

Maria Sharapova was back.

In January, the world’s former No. 1 ranked player lost to Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals. She also failed her drug test, which was much worse than losing in straight sets to Serena. On June 8, the International Tennis Federation suspended her for two years.

Game, set, match?

A lot of tennis people thought so.

Sharapova is 29 years old, an icon in a game for younger icons, and she has been plagued by injuries throughout her career. After the suspension, she would be 31.


 


Jimmy Connors was 39 when he charged to the U.S. Open semifinals in 1991. But that was Jimbo. There’s only one Jimbo.

Sharapova tested positive for a banned substance called Meldonium, which sounds like a made-up country from the old “Batman” TV series. It’s a drug mostly prescribed for people with heart conditions. It is believed to optimize one’s oxygen levels.

Sharapova said when she started taking Meldonium, it was called something else. It was not on the banned list of substances then, she said.

Last week a sympathetic appeals court reduced her ban from 24 months to 15. She’ll be eligible to start grunting again at the 2017 French Open.

During her heyday, the Russian-born Sharapova won a career Grand Slam. She is tall, blonde, powerful, graceful, does modeling work on the side. Irascible John McEnroe, who also was serving and volleying Monday, said she is one of the best competitors he has ever seen.

But not everybody is happy she’s back, or will be coming back prematurely.

“I can’t believe it, actually,” said Samantha Stosur, who defeated Serena Williams in the 2011 U.S. Open final. “I don’t know how you can get away with that excuse and have that overturned. It really sets a bad precedent moving forward, where you can almost put your hands up and say it was not my fault.”

When the suspension first was announced, there just wasn’t a lot of support for Sharapova among other players, past and present. Jennifer Capriati wrote on her Twitter account that Sharapova should be stripped of all 35 pro titles she has won. Even McEnroe said it was hard to believe her story.

Sharapova said last week the International Tennis Foundation wanted to make an example of her. She said the ITF wanted to ban her for four years. That essentially would have ended her competitive career, save for events such as the one here Monday night, although I’m sure the WTT’s Springfield (Mo.) Lasers would have cleared a roster spot for her.

During the brief news conference before the serving and volleying, Sharapova would only discuss the ban in general terms. When asked how she expected to be received by Las Vegas tennis fans, she said this:

“I’ve performed for some incredible fans and I’ve traveled around the world since I was a young girl, competing and playing at the highest levels. Yeah, obviously I hope to see a lot of fans tonight …”

She didn’t really answer the question. It would appear Maria Sharapova has been watching the candidates debate, too.

Leave it to Elton John to address the elephant in the room outside the Colosseum where he plays the Million Dollar Piano.

“I can’t comment on the suspension as I’m not involved with that,” Sir Elton said. “But I think it’s amazing she’s playing tonight. She’s being extremely generous.

“What happened to her is none of my business; all I know is I think it’s fantastic she has turned out tonight, because she knew she was going to have questions thrown in her face, and she showed up, and I think that’s brilliant.”

Leave it to (Honorary) Captain Fantastic to record the evening’s first ace.

A little while later, when Maria Sharapova was introduced to the crowd, the crowd gave her a nice ovation — almost as nice as the one irascible John McEnroe received. Perhaps tennis fans won’t be so warm and fuzzy at Roland Garros, but if one had to guess, the Springfield Lasers probably won’t be clearing a roster spot for her anytime soon.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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