The most anticipated return in tennis this year was, depending on you asked, a cause for either celebration or concern. In the end, Maria Sharapova’s appearance at last week’s Stuttgart event certainly couldn’t have come at a better time for women’s tennis. But the week itself proved it won’t be easy for Sharapova or the WTA to just simply move forward despite the lingering controversy from her nearly year long doping ban.
Sharapova’s return to tennis after serving out a suspension for taking the banned substance meldonium conveniently ended at the Stuttgart event. Convenient for her since the tournament’s main sponsor is also a sponsor of the event, hence why she was awarded a wildcard into the main draw. While Sharapova’s return was expected to be big news, it became even more so after Serena Williams announced her pregnancy a week earlier.
With current World No. 1 Williams not competing for the rest of the year, along with new mom and former No. 1 Victoria Azarenka not set to return till later this summer, Sharapova’s marquee value became even more important to the WTA.
This is due to several reasons including the lack of any new compelling current rivalries and that Angelique Kerber, who will soon be No. 1 again due to Williams’ absence, is not yet able to solidify herself as the player to beat every week. In fact, there is no one player to beat each week as the WTA is wide open in terms of any of number of players winning titles any week. Just ask Laura Siegemund, a wildcard, who with crafty drop shots beat three top 10 players and ended up winning the Stuttgart title.
Though Siegemund won the title, Sharapova was still the big story of the week. While anticipation and curiosity were high to watch Sharapova play, it sure wasn’t easy to do so. That’s largely due to the WTA’s ongoing struggles to launch its own streaming platform and limited broadcast options outside of the majors. Though BeinSports had the Stuttgart event on their schedule, for some reason, the TV network had to rely on a You Tube stream to show two of Sharapova’s matches.
While some of this may have been to give non subscribers a chance to watch, it certainly didn’t help the WTA build momentum for their own planned streaming service that was supposed to have been ready by now. Though Sharapova, thanks to more wildcards, will also compete in Madrid and Rome, it’s once again up in the air how the WTA will be able to capitalize considering the iffy state of their broadcast and streaming platforms.
Those issues aside, Sharapova’s semifinal run at Stuttgart despite her long absence already has her the odds on favorite to win the French Open, a major she has won twice. The fact that Sharapova is already showing solid form, and with the rest of the WTA field so wide open, makes the Russian the biggest story in women’s tennis. Even with the ongoing questions about her ban and reinstatement in the game.
While the WTA is embracing Sharapova’s return, the bigger question remains if the rest of the players on the tour, especially with Williams not playing, can take advantage as well with perhaps one or two players breaking out to becoming that “player to beat”. Until then, with a lack of compelling storylines or rivalries from the tour, Sharapova will remain the only story worthy of widespread attention.