Sharapova returns for US Open as Serena Williams opens fire
Russian tennis star is handed wildcard for final Grand Slam of year as her nemesis targets Australian Open
Maria Sharapova will play her first Grand Slam tournament since her drugs ban this month after being given a wildcard entry to the US Open.
Although the 30-year-old is ranked 148th in the world, and would therefore be eligible for qualifying, she has been handed a ticket to the main draw 18 months after she tested positive for the banned substance meldonium at the Australian Open.
The Russian returned from a 15-month ban earlier in the year but was denied entry to the French Open and missed Wimbledon through injury.
But the US Tennis Association said her ban was not a factor in its considerations as she had served her punishment. It added that handed a former champion a wildcard was "consistent with past practice".
Sharapova, who won the US Open in 2006, expressed her delight on Twitter.
"The Sharapova wild-card debate took up a huge amount of tennis's attention during the spring," says Simon Briggs of the Daily Telegraph, "when many of her peers in the locker room suggested that she should not be given any help with her comeback from an 15-month doping ban."
But she has "powerful supporters" in the sport who felt she was being harshly treated, while the attitude towards her in the US has been "largely been more forgiving" than in Europe.
Another factor in the decision could be an absence of other big names at Flushing Meadows this year.
Serena Williams, who is pregnant, and Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka, who are injured, will be absent. There are further question marks over the availability of Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Victoria Azarenka. "All these absentees make Sharapova – who has been struggling herself lately with a sore left forearm – an even more valuable currency than usual," says Briggs.
But the US Open might represent Sharapova's best chance of winning another Grand Slam, as her nemesis Serena Williams, who is pregnant with her first child, has targeted next year's Australian Open for a return to action.
Williams, who has 23 Major titles, told Vogue: "It's the most outrageous plan. I just want to put that out there. That's, like, three months after I give birth. I'm not walking anything back, but I'm just saying it's pretty intense."
Williams also stoked the embers of her one-sided rivalry with Sharapova by claiming that the Russian got an easier ride than she did.
"In Australia last year, I read that Maria Sharapova's backhand and forehand are as good or better than mine, and that the only reason I win is that my serve is bigger. I was like, wait a minute, please. I place my serve. And what about my volleys? My speed? I'm the player who's hitting angles. I'm the player who moves you. I use my brain, and that's really why I win.
"I believe that the other girls in the locker room will say, 'Serena's really nice'. But Maria Sharapova, who might not talk to anybody, might be perceived by the public as nicer. Why is that? Because I'm black and so I look mean? That's the society we live in. That's life. They say African-Americans have to be twice as good, especially women. I'm perfectly OK with having to be twice as good."