Maria Sharapova says rivals’ criticism least of her concerns

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Berlin: Maria Sharapova has brushed off criticism from her rivals as she prepares to make her return next week in Stuttgart following her 15-month doping ban.

“That is the least of my concerns,” the 30-year-old Russian told Thursday’s edition of Stern magazine.

“I haven’t wasted a single thought on it. I know that I am respected in my field.

“I see it in how my opponents play against me.”

Sharapova, a five-times Grand Slam champion, had an initial two-year suspension by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) reduced to 15 months after she tested positive at the 2016 Australian Open for meldonium.

It is a medication Sharapova had been taking when it was within the rules, but which was later reclassified as a prohibited drug.

The Russian makes her return next Wednesday – the first day she is eligible to play – having been given a wildcard for Stuttgart’s WTA tournament with some rivals disapproving of the organisers’ decision.

“It’s a German tournament and we have so many good German players, so this is a little strange,” said Germany’s current world number one Angelique Kerber.

Former world number one Caroline Wozniacki said the Stuttgart tournament’s decision to grant Sharapova a wildcard is “disrespectful to other players and the WTA”.

However, Sharapova could not have picked a better place to make her return.

She has won the Stuttgart clay-court tournament three times and lost just once – to Kerber in 2015 in the first-round.

The Russian can expect a warm welcome from the organisers as she is an ambassador for luxury car manufacturers Porsche, who sponsor the Stuttgart tournament.

Also in the Stern interview, Sharapova again hit out at the ITF – especially the boss of their anti-doping programme Stuart Miller – for failing to warn her before meldonium was added to the banned list.

“He didn’t want to know anything about it,” she told Stern having also criticised the ITF last week in an interview with The Times.

“And for me, that is proof that he didn’t do his job properly.

“At the ITF, they should make sure the athletes are informed about the new doping rules.

“I take responsibility for my part, but there are other people who could have taken action. And they belong to the ITF.”

Sharapova says she found it “incredibly difficult” to come to terms with her doping ban: “I felt very small and vulnerable”. (AFP)

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