True grit Maria Sharapova back at French Open with point to prove
Paris, May 22 (AFP) There will be questions about suspensions, favouritism and rivalries, and fashion, parties and candy lines.
There will be accusations of slights -- real or imagined -- greeted either with a giggle, an icy stare or a pitch-perfect, withering put down.
It can only mean one thing -- Maria Sharapova is about to play in a Grand Slam event.
But not just any Grand Slam. This is the French Open where she has won two of her five career majors but where, 12 months ago, Roland Garros chiefs took to the moral high ground.
From there, they told the Russian icon that she was not welcome, her recently-concluded 15-month doping ban considered too raw to allow her the convenience of a wildcard into the clay court showpiece.
Injury then ruled her out of Wimbledon before she made a stunning Grand Slam return at the US Open under the lights of Arthur Ashe Court in August.
"Behind this little black dress and the Swarovski crystals, there is a girl with a lot of grit and she's not going anywhere," said Sharapova after seeing off second seed Simona Halep in her New York opener.
It could just as well have been a riposte to Roland Garros three months earlier.
Back then the former world number one had seen her ranking slump to 173 as she started to rebuild a career which also doubles as a multi-million dollar brand empire.
Now, thanks to the characteristic cussedness that has served her well since her tennis odyssey began in Russia before being honed in Florida, the 31-year-old Sharapova is back in the top 30 and guaranteed a seeded place when the 2018 French Open starts on Sunday.
Only the very brave would write off the title chances of a player who was champion in 2012 and 2014, runner-up in 2013 and semi-finalist in 2011. She is also hitting form at the right time.
Having endured a four-match losing streak for the first time since 2003, Sharapova arrives in the French capital on the back of a last-eight run in Madrid and semi-final spot in Rome where she took the first set off world number one Halep before drowning in a sea of errors.
- 'So excited' -
Reunited with former coach Thomas Hogstedt, her performance in Rome was her best run at such a level since the 2015 WTA Tour Finals.
"I like the way I'm competing and the way I feel out there. It's an inner feeling. I like the attitude that I'm playing with," said Sharapova, who added she was "going be so excited" to be heading back to Paris after "a tough period" in her life.
"I've had an incredible amount of memories there. Being in that environment, just even the practice and getting there on the first day, practising on centre court for the first time ... I love it.
"There's nothing that can replicate it. As long as I can continue to feel motivated by that moment, I'll keep loving it and playing there."
Fans and sponsors will be delighted to see Sharapova back on Court Philippe Chatrier, such is her pulling power.
Even when she was off tour in 2016, and saw her 11-year streak as the world's richest sportswoman end, she was still commercial gold.
According to Forbes magazine, Sharapova saw her income during her suspension slashed by around $8 million.
However, she still pulled in a tidy $21.9 million with only longtime rival Serena Williams able to boast a healthier bank balance.
Her appearance in Paris will still rankle with some of her rivals. Last year, former golden girl Eugenie Bouchard described Sharapova as "a cheater" who should have been banned for life.
However, this week, former world number five Bouchard, a Wimbledon runner-up in 2014, is down at 167 in the rankings and having to play qualifiers at Roland Garros