A year on from one of the most anticipated comebacks in tennis, Maria Sharapova finds herself in an unusual place.
When the Russian superstar returned to the women’s game on April 26 last year after a 15-month suspension, most tennis experts predicted a swift return to the top 10.
After all Sharapova is a former world No. 1 and five-time major winner, who had been ranked seventh in the world when she was suspended in March 2016 for testing positive for the recently banned heart drug meldonium.
But 12 months later, Sharapova is ranked No. 42, having struggled with injuries following her comeback.
“I didn’t put any expectations on myself coming back after the suspension,” Sharapova said in an exclusive phone interview from her home in Los Angeles.
“Because missing that period of time at this age and after going through different things in my life, whether it’s injury or surgery, just being away from the sport, even though you are resting your body and even though I was resting things that were hurting before, you can never replicate what you do in a match environment,” said Sharapova, who turned 31 earlier this month.
“I am still working through that, and I am still getting that back, and that takes a while.”
Having started her comeback with a semifinals spot at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany a year ago, the two-time French Open winner was denied a wild card by Roland Garros tournament organizers the next month.
A left thigh injury, sustained in the second round of a clay-court event in Rome, then forced her out of Wimbledon qualifying, while a left arm injury meant she had to withdraw from hard-court events in August in Stanford, Toronto and Cincinnati.
But Sharapova celebrated her comeback to major tennis with a win over the second-seeded Simona Halep in the opening round of the US Open, where she reached the fourth round. Her season peaked in October, when she won her 36th career title in Tianjin, China.
However, still hampered by a forearm injury, 2018 has been a frustrating year for Sharapova, who has won just five matches in four events, including back-to-back defeats in the opening rounds in Doha in February and in Indian Wells, California in March.