NEW YORK (Reuters) - Maria Sharapova can expect a warm reception from fans in New York when she makes her grand slam return at the U.S. Open next week following a 15-month doping ban, but just how competitive she will be is hard to say, ESPN analyst Chris Evert said.
The former world number one, who returned to action in April after a 15-month ban, was awarded a main-draw wildcard for the tournament she won in 2006 after French officials denied her that same courtesy for the French Open earlier this year.
“The American crowd is going to be very respectful of Maria and I would think she will get a warm reception coming back,” Evert, a winner of 18 majors during her career, said on a conference call this week.
“Most people think that she has paid her dues and it’s time to get back on the circuit.”
Sharapova tested positive for the drug meldonium in 2016, which had been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substances list in January of that year.
The 30-year-old Russian, a winner of five grand slam titles, said she was unaware of the change.
The bigger question is how her game will match up against a competitive women’s field and whether the injuries that kept her out of the grasscourt season and parts of the hardcourt season have healed.
“She really had a great start this summer but was injury prone,” Evert said.
Sharapova’s U.S. Open preparations were disrupted by an arm injury suffered during a first-round win at the Stanford Classic earlier this month. She then withdrew from events in Toronto and Cincinnati as a precautionary measure before the final grand slam of the year.
“Lack of tournament play really wreaks havoc on your body. Not only physical but I’m sure mental and emotional as well,” Evert said.
“So if it’s a healthy Maria Sharapova, you can’t put anything past her. She looked good two months ago so with a good draw, it’s possible she gets to the second week.”
American tennis great John McEnroe said the reaction from the notoriously vocal U.S. Open crowd to Sharapova will be “somewhat mixed,” but said interest in her performance will be at an all-time high.
“She’s obviously the biggest name in the draw so that’s going to provide some interest. A lot of us are interested to see how she does, there’s no question.”
Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Frank Pingue