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By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday, May 18, 2016

 
Maria Sharapova, Chris Evert

"I doubt whether she can get back to number two," Hall of Famer Chrissie Evert says of Maria Sharapova.

Photo credit: Zimbio

Maria Sharapova faced an anti-doping disciplinary hearing in London today and could confront a harsh comeback reality.

Currently serving a provisional suspension after testing positive for meldonium at the Australian Open, Sharapova faces a maximum ban of four years. A ruling on her punishment is expected by Wimbledon, International Tennis Federation president David Haggerty said.

Pros: Sharapova Should Be Hit With a One-Year Ban

Experts speculate Sharapova is facing a likely suspension of anywhere from six months to one year, but even a reduced sentence could have major repercussions for the world's highest-paid female athlete.

While Sharapova stands at a career crossroads, Hall of Famer Chris Evert says "time is running out" on the 29-year-old Russian to return to tennis as an elite player.

In an ESPN conference call today, the seven-time French Open champion said the clock is ticking on Sharapova's career and suggests her days as a top player are likely done.

"I think at 29 time is running out for Maria," Evert told Tennis Now. "Look, she started in her teens playing full schedules. I think that motivation and hunger—her hunger even more so has always motivated her to go out and play and that's what we've admired in her so much is the intense hunger that she's had.

"And now that she's getting a taste of real life. I'm seeing tweets she's out and about, traveling and going to premieres, modeling and she's everywhere. And I think as she gets a little taste of the good life who knows if she's gonna comeback as hungry? I don't know maybe she'll have a little bit different attitude."

Evert said advancements by the rest of the field combined with Sharapova's sabbatical from the sport could deepen the cracks already showing in her game before her suspension.

"But at 29 years old and the players are getting better and better. And Maria, if you look at her results the past few years, she's having more and more losses to players that are ranked below her," Evert said. "And I think she was starting to kind of get a little fragile anyway when this happened earlier this year. So I think it's gonna be tough (to comeback)."

The two-time Roland Garros champion contested the French Open final in three of the last four years. Sharapova, the 2015 Australian Open runner-up to Serena Williams, played just one match in a four-month span last summer citing right leg and forearm injuries.

Though she missed the entire 2015 US Open Series, including the US Open for the second time in three years, Sharapova still managed to finish in the Top 5 last season for the fifth consecutive year.

Evert suggests that may well be the 24th-ranked Russian's final Top 5 appearance.

"If she comes back hungry and as mentally strong as she always has been then again nothing she can do will surprise me," Evert said. "But at the same time, I just wonder just about how much tennis she's played in her career and the players getting better. I doubt whether she can get back to number two."


 

Paris from a different view

A photo posted by Maria Sharapova (@mariasharapova) on



ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe says Sharapova will face a difficult challenge in her comeback bid, but believes she's capable of returning to a competitive level "reasonably quickly."

"Even if she gets off somewhat easily—I think she may be able to come back late this year, I'm just guessing—it's not going to be easy either way to come back being off this long for any player," Patrick McEnroe told Tennis Now. "But particularly a player who is toward the tail end of her career. She seems extremely motivated to come back and I'm sure she's keeping herself as fit as she can. She's certainly capable of coming back reasonably quickly."

Former Top 10 player and coach Brad Gilbert expects it will take Sharapova several months to play her way into form. Currently ranked No. 24, Sharapova's challenge will be compounded by unseeded status when she does return.

"I think the toughest challenge for Maria, bar none, will be whenever she does come back, let's say it's Australian Open 2017, she's gonna be ranked very low. She's gonna be unseeded," Gilbert said. "So you're at the mercy of the draw. It could take her three to six months to get form and get her way back."

Opponents will be even more motivated against Sharapova when she returns seeing a clash with the five-time Grand Slam champion as an opportunity match, says Gilbert.

"Believe me a lot of players won't feel sorry for her, especially a lot of them that she's owned," Gilbert said. "A lot of them will be looking to get a win back against her especially if they've rarely beaten her. So it's opportunity for players to get her when her confidence isn't quite there and she'll be at the mercy of the draw being unseeded."

All three analysts said Serena Williams' run to the Rome title last week make her the French Open favorite. Evert said though she believes "its going to be more difficult" for the top seed, but pointed out "looking at her form in Rome, it was pretty darn good."

"Never underestimate Serena Williams, because any other player would be so undercooked coming in with no tennis, and then just, boom, wins it," Brad Gilbert said. "So just basic Serena, like never underestimate her, and now she’s the favorite to win the French."

ESPN dropped its domestic Roland Garros rights last year. ESPN International televises the French Open in Latin America and the Caribbean, including on cruise ships. 


 

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