FLUSHING MEADOWS, Queens — Maria Sharapova, 30, didn’t join the parade of tennis stars who marched into the press room at Arthur Ashe Stadium, an annual ritual before every U.S. Open, but her name was constantly mentioned in questions to the top, female athletes.
Sharapova, a tall and lean blonde Russian who’s a five-time Grand Slam winner, has earned an estimated $285 million in prize money and modeling endorsements since 2001….from companies like American Express, Nike, and Canon. She appeared in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue. She was named one of the 30 legends in women’s tennis in 2011. She even had her own candy.
But Sharapova only recently returned to the tennis tour. She was banned from the game for 15-months, after she tested positive for a substance called meldonium during the Australian Open in late January 2016. The drug, which had only been banned on January 1, 2016, increases blood flow and the delivery of oxygen in the arteries.
Even though Sharapova is currently ranked #148 in the world, the former #1 was often topic number one in questioning to the female players Saturday, because the U.S. Open officials granted her “wild card” status. This allowed her to participate in the main draw. In fact, Sharapova is playing in one of the first matches, after Opening Night ceremonies Monday.
A number of the star players hesitated Saturday, when asked about Sharapova’s wild card entry.
But Garbine Muguruza of Spain, who’s ranked #3 in the world and won Wimbledon this year — a title Sharapova took home in 2004 —didn’t shy away from the question
“Well, it’s….something like really tricky to answer, because I guess when someone has been, you know — I don’t know if it’s banned, the word, or, like, out of competition, I think you have to work for it, you know, a little bit to go and play your tournaments and not help that much sometimes, you know. You’ve got to work hard and deserve it again. I think that’s the way.”
Muguruza had noted earlier, however, “What I think of her, I think she’s a fighter, you know, great attitude, big fight, spirit in the court.”
“I guess the fans want her back. I guess she–you know, she will improve the tournament. That’s what it feels like.”
Simona Halep, currently ranked #2 among the female players in the world, will face Sharapova in that opening round.
“She’s strong enough to come back, in my opinion,” Halep said. “Facing her…it’s going to be a big challenge. She beat me six times. So maybe I will change this. We will see Monday.”
Karolina Plistova of the Czech Republic, who’s now ranked # 1, flashed an engagement ring at the press conference.
Plistova said of Sharapova, “I think it’s a good story for the tournament that she’s back.”
Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, who reached the U.S. Open finals twice–and lost to her friend Serena Williams in 2014–was not eager to comment on Sharapova’s wild card entry.
“She’s a player like everyone else in the draw.”
But Wozniacki smiled and laughed a bit when PIX11 asked her about Serena Williams’ recent baby shower.
“I was invited but I didn’t go, because I was playing in Toronto,” Wozniacki said.
“I was bummed out, because I heard it was so much fun,” Wozniacki told PIX11. “You know, maybe I’ll make the next one,” she said with a grin.
California-born Serena Williams has won more Grand Slam titles than any other female in the modern, Open era: 23.
Her leave from the tour to have a baby may allow other females, including American Madison Keyes, an opportunity to go deeper in the tournament.
But Keyes, who is ranked # 16 in the world, is philosophical about the current landscape.
“I don’t think Serena being gone it’s like immediately, like, ‘Madison, you’re our only hope.’ I’m focused on myself and, you know, I’m not really concerned that I’m wherever I am with the women. I think there is a lot of great, American women playing at the moment, and I think there is lots of opportunities.”