By Richard Pagliaro | Wednesday January 11, 2017
"I think life for Maria Sharapova is looking really good—on the court and off the court," says Chrissie Evert.
Photo credit: Getty
Serving a 15-month doping ban won’t stop Maria Sharapova from returning to the Top 5—and could inspire an attitude adjustment in Sharapova, says Hall of Famer Chrissie Evert.
In a conference call with the media to promote ESPN’s Australian Open coverage starting Sunday night, Evert said the suspension could serve as “a wake-up call” for Sharapova in that it’s given her time for growth. Time to strengthen her body, sharpen her fitness, refine her game and reflect on an opportunity to compete for Grand Slam championships again.
More: Sharapova Set For Stuttgart Return
The ESPN analyst strongly asserts Sharapova, whose status as a five-time Grand Slam champion warrants unlimited cards under WTA rules, will regain her place as a Top 5-ranked player.
“Do I think she can be Top 10? Absolutely. It’s so close, the top 20 and 30,” Evert said. “It’s so close at the top there’s no big gap in the top 20 or 30. So yes, she can get back (to the top 10). Can she get back to Top 5? I don’t see why not. Absolutely, absolutely.”
The 29-year-old Russian announced she will launch her comeback in April on the red clay of Stuttgart at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. Sharapova is a three-time former Stuttgart champion and a Porsche endorser.
Though she hasn’t played a Tour-level match since losing to Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals last January, Sharapova played Olympic gold-medal champion Monica Puig in an exhibition match in San Juan, Puerto Rico last month after participating in World TeamTennis’ Smash Hits charity event in Las Vegas. She's suggested she will play another exhibition before Stuttgart.
Working with coach Sven Groeneveld during her suspension could help the flat-hitting power player add some subtlety to her game, said Evert, who cites Sharapova’s toughness as a quality time does not diminish.
“How can you count Maria out? She’s—along with Serena—probably the mentally toughest player out there and plays every point like it’s match point,” Evert said. “She might have a different approach. She might go out there and she might be working on her fitness even more so with this time off. She might have a little more variety in her game. I think life for Maria Sharapova is looking really good—on the court and off the court.”
Time off could be transformative to Sharapova’s approach to life on the pro circuit.
Speculating the WTA could see a more sociable Sharapova, Evert envisions Sharapova, who took courses at Harvard and invested time in her various businesses while serving her ban, will be more genial with rivals in her return.
“I have a feeling there’s gonna be a little different Maria that’s coming back,” Evert told the media. “I think she’s had a little bit of a wake-up call as far as living life. I feel like she’s out of her bubble now. She went back to school for a little bit. She’s gotten better in her business, she’s made more appearances, she’s socializing more with her friends.
“I feel like it’s sort of a silver lining this whole taking off the last year-and-a-half. I think she’s gonna be a little different. I think she’s gonna be more open. I think she’s gonna be friendlier and I think she’s gonna come back a little more evolved as a person. This is all me thinking. I don’t even know. I just have a feeling from what I’m hearing when she does talk and do press conferences and does her exhibitions.”
In the aftermath of Sharapova’s suspension, some players, including Dominika Cibulkova and Kristina Mladenovic, characterized Sharapova as cold and aloof to colleagues. Cibulkova castigated Sharapova as “a totally unlikeable person…arrogant, conceited and cold.”
"I was surprised that most of the reactions were so diplomatic, because everyone's opinion is actually totally different," the 26-year-old Slovakian told sport.sk when asked her views on Sharapova’s drug suspension. "I didn't make any statement, as I didn't want to be the only person to openly say what they think about this case.I will only say that I don't feel sorry at all for Sharapova and I don't miss her on the tour.”
"She's a totally unlikeable person,” Cibulkova added. “Arrogant, conceited and cold. When I sit beside her in the locker room, she won't even say hello."
The reception Sharapova receives from fellow players will depend on the attitude she carries in her comeback, says Evert.
“I think the players are gonna be fine,” Evert said. “It depends on her. If she’s gonna come back with an open mind and friendlier, I think the players definitely will welcome her back."