MARIA Sharapova was branded a “cheater” by Eugenie Bouchard, the latest rival to rain on her comeback parade.
So it’s just as well Sharapova sees no need to try to make more friends in the locker room, remaining loud, proud and defiant during and after her winning return against Roberta Vinci.
Bouchard was asked by TMT World at a tournament in Istanbul about the Russian being given wildcards here nd at tournaments to come in Madrid and Rome, despite having been out of the game for 15 months because she failed a drugs test.
Former Wimbledon finalist Bouchard let rip, saying: “She’s a cheater and so, to me, I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again.
“Unfair to all these players who do it the right way and are true.
“I think from the [Women’s Tennis Association] it sends the wrong message to young kids: ‘Cheat and we’ll welcome you back with open arms.’
“I don’t think that’s right 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, though, says she couldn’t give a monkeys.
Asked if she would try to build bridges with the rivals who seem to dislike her so much, Sharapova treated the idea as bizarre.
She said: “To have people say nice things about me in press conferences – what will that change about my tennis?
“I can’t control what people say. The only thing I can control is what I do out there.”
And what she did out there in an impressive 7-5 6-3 victory over Vinci, full of flashing groundstrokes and solid serving, suggested she wouldn’t be needing wildcards for long.
But she’ll need one to play even in qualifying at the French Open, let alone the main draw, and a decision will be made on May 16 by the French tennis federation.
“I’d play in the juniors if I had to,” said Sharapova. “I’m not getting wildcards to receive a trophy or a golden platter. It’s my job to win matches.”
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The Russian was ice cool in her first full-blown encounter with the media since she announced her positive test in a Los Angeles hotel in March.
The closest she came to losing her composure was when she was asked what replacement she had found for the drug meldonium which she carried on taking after it was banned at the start of 2015.
She snapped: “That information is between myself, the WTA and the orthopaedic doctor I’m now working with.”
Apart from that, though, she was very much in control and even in the mood for a little bit of sparring with SunSport.
Rolling her eyes and saying “Oh, God” at the prospect of The Sun asking a question, Sharapova wondered if it was our first time at the tournament where she is a three-time champion.
Told that it was, she said: “Wow, virgins”.
You don’t need to be experienced to sense that Sharapova is loving how she is upsetting people.
Asked about her agent Max Eisenbud describing critics like Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska as “journeyman” players, she said: “I don’t control my manager’s words.
“I’m sure he’s been watching everyone’s comments in the previous 15 months.
“He’s entitled to his opinion.”
An opinion Sharapova had declined to distance herself from, naturally.
Angelique Kerber says her opposition to Sharapova’s wildcards is nothing personal. But it seemed significant that the reigning champion cut short her own practice session by 15 minutes and so avoided coming into contact with Sharapova.
And when the Russian’s own training drills were over, there was no interaction with Carla Suarez Navarro, who was next on court.
The questions and tension are bound to rumble on, however much British No 1 Jo Konta and others may want the Sharapova circus to end.
“Hopefully the tennis world can move on and focus more on the tennis than the drama around it,” said Konta after beating Naomi Osaka 7-6 3-6 6-1 in her own first-round match.
There’s little hope of that, though. And you get the feeling Sharapova wouldn’t have it any other way.
Like the Millwall of tennis, only impossibly rich and glamorous, no-one likes her, but she don’t care.