Maria Sharapova is back, whether her critics like it or not

Nothing has been easy for Maria Sharapova since her April return from a 15-month drug ban. The 30-year-old’s comeback hasn’t been as sweet as the stuff she sells at her Sugarpova company.

Losses have mounted, injuries (hip, forearm) have been rampant. The French Open dissed Sharapova by not extending a wild-card spot during her comeback from the suspension for testing positive for melodium.

If her fortunes are to change at the U.S. Open, it wasn’t apparent Friday when the draw dealt her another blow. As bad luck would have it, the unseeded Sharapova got stuck with a match against No. 2 seed Simona Halep in Round 1.

Her agent, Max Eisenbud, said Sharapaova wants to keep a low profile entering the Open — she made just one sponsor appearance for Evian and skipped media day Saturday.

In a brief interview for the Open’s website, Sharapova said: “I haven’t had the best preparation, if we’re really being honest. After healing for many weeks and skipping Wimbledon, and now to skip the warm-up tournaments, is disappointing.

“I’m coming in with no matches,’’ she added. “But I have had the experience of that position before. I have to bring that back.”

Unlike the French Tennis Association, the Open was eager to invite Sharapova, the 2006 champion, as a wild card in a rather lackluster women’s draw. In turn, a grateful Sharapova has volunteered to give a talk to young tennis players at the USTA’s training campus in Orlando, Fla., about complying with the anti-doping policy.

Wimbledon never needed to make the decision on Sharapova because she decided to play the qualifiers — until she pulled out with a thigh injury.

Sharapova hasn’t gotten much sympathy for the French snub. Upon her return, Eugenie Bouchard called Sharapova “a cheater.’’ After she beat Sharapova in Madrid, Bouchard revealed players had been rooting for her.

Eugenie Bouchard (left) called Maria Sharapova “a cheater” after beating her in May.

Sharapova has never been the most popular in the women’s locker room and her counterparts are now numb to the subject on whether she deserved a wild card here.

On Saturday, Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and even Halep claimed no opinion on the USTA’s decision. Wozniacki called Sharapova “just another player in the draw.’’

Her ranking stands at 147 and the Westgate Superbook has her at 20-1 to win the Open. And that’s kind.

“A wild card is given by a tournament and they have the prerogative,’’ ESPN’s Mary Joe Fernandez told The Post. “I don’t have a problem giving her one or not giving her one. I don’t have a problem either way.”

If you blink, you may miss the five-time Grand Slam winner Monday night when she battles Halep. Sharapova hasn’t played since late July when she withdrew from a tournament at Stanford with a left forearm injury, and has been spotted practicing at the Open grounds wearing a right sleeve. Sharapova has played five matches total since 2015.

The good news is Sharapova holds a 6-0 record against Halep, and the Romanian has been known to fizzle in big matches. But the two haven’t met since 2015.

Halep said when she heard the news, she thought of all the tough draws she has been dealt this year and said to herself, “How did this happen again?” She called it “a big challenge, adding, “I feel I’m ready to face her again.’’

Fernandez doesn’t expect Sharapova to prevail.

“Once you’ve been a champion, you have that confidence already,’’ Fernandez said. “It wouldn’t shock me if she pulled off the huge upset. But it shouldn’t happen because of the lack of matches. No doubt she can get back to the top five, but her health concerns me.’’

In an article she recently penned for The Players’ Tribune, Sharapova, whose ban forced her out of the 2016 Open, sounded tortured by the ordeal. She recounted one illuminating anecdote about having “an emotional release” when her practice court in Germany was surrounded by fans during a final hitting session moments before her first match back, in late April.

“When they saw me, a bunch of my fans gathered around the court to watch the practice. And they had all these Russian flags and these WELCOME BACK, MARIA signs that they had made and they were just clapping, and yelling, and cheering for me, the whole while,’’ Sharapova wrote.

“In my head, all I was doing was imagining these girls: at home, finding the right glue, and the right glitter, and the right markers, and deciding on the exact right thing to say. And doing all of that for me.”

Sharapova’s back with her Flushing fans, back for her first Grand Slam since the ban.

“I’m sure I’ll win some, and I’ll lose some,” she wrote. “I’m sure my dozens of critics will show up, and so will my thousands of fans. When it comes to tennis, good or bad — there’s really only one thing that I know for certain.

“I’ve missed it.”

Five women to watch

Venus WilliamsShutterstock

(9) Venus Williams
Odds: 14-1

She’s the Williams sister not having a baby. With Serena on the verge of giving birth, a surge by the 37-year-old Venus would be the Open’s feel-good story. She stunningly made the Wimbledon finals but may not have enough left in tank.

(1) Karolina Pliskova
Odds: 7-1

She’s No. 1 in the world and had her breakout here last September when she stunned Serena and Venus to make the finals. Pliskova has a good draw.

(12) Jelena Ostapenko
Odds: 16-1

Latvian athletes tend to excel in New York. The surprise French Open champion, however, struggled in Open tune-ups as the pride of Latvia after Kristaps Porzingis.

Cici BellisAP

(NR) Cici Bellis
Odds: 150-1

She’s 18 now, a Cinderella story at two Opens, including in 2014 at age 15 when she became the youngest American to win a match here. Last year, she got to the third round, then skipped out on a scholarship to Stanford to turn pro. Bellis has been solid, if unseeded, in her first full year on tour.

(3) Garbine Muguruza
Odds: 6-1

The Wimbledon champ is mild favorite but has done poorly in Flushing, failing to get out of the second round in four Opens.

Odds courtesy

This News Credit Goes To >> Source link