Maria Sharapova’s comeback has been anything but dreamlike. After serving a 15-month ban for testing positive for the banned substance meldonium in 2016, the 30-year-old Russian has made more headlines for being allowed to easily reenter tournaments than for any of her performances.
That changed Saturday, when Sharapova, who came into the Tianjin Open in China on a wild card entry, beat No. 3 seed Peng Shuai to reach her first WTA tournament final since 2015.
“The finals are the stage that I want to be at and where I want to do well,” Sharapova said (via WTA) after winning in straight sets, 6-3, 6-1. “It has been a long road, so this is very rewarding, but I also know I have another match to play, so as much as I want to be happy and content, I know that I have an ambitious opponent in front of me.”
Sharapova will face up-and-coming Belarusian player Aryna Sabalenka, 19, on Sunday for the title. While Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam winner, brings more experience, she’s not underestimating her young opponent.
“From what I have seen, she is a really good player,” Sharapova said. “She is hungry, young [and] motivated to be in this stage of the tournament. It’s very flattering when someone looks up to you, but it’s also very dangerous because they want that position. They want to be the champion and no matter who you are playing in the final, both of us deserve to be at that stage.”
Some have wondered, however, if Sharapova deserves to play in any WTA events at all following her doping ban.
“I think you should really have to work your way back,” Murray told the Times (via the Independent) earlier this year of Sharapova after she was granted entry from tournament organizers in Madrid, Rome and Stuttgart.
Sharapova, who was once ranked No. 1 in the world, returned from her ban unranked by the WTA, yet gained entry to several top tournaments that usually require being ranked. Sharapova has since moved up to No. 86.
Others, including Canadian tennis star Eugenie Bouchard, complained that by letting Sharapova into tournaments that usually require a high ranking, WTA “sends the wrong message to young kids.”
” ‘Cheat and we’ll welcome you back with open arms.’ I don’t think that’s right,” Bourchard said (via the Telegraph), “and she’s definitely not someone I can say I look up to anymore because it’s definitely ruined it for me a little bit.”
Sharapova hasn’t been derailed by the criticism, possibly because she does not believe she is a “cheat.”
While the drug, which is not FDA approved for use in the United States, increases blood flow that may improve athletic performance, Sharapova said she was prescribed the drug in 2006 to treat a magnesium deficiency and irregular EKG results. She said she was unaware the World Anti-Doping Agency had added it to its banned list on Jan. 1, 2016.
Sharapova was originally banned for two years, but an appeal decision granted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport decreased the ban to 15 months after finding Sharapova bore “some degree of fault” but not “significant fault” for her failed drug test.