Sharapova back at Wimbledon and at crossroads

by Dave JAMES
1 / 2
Queen of Centre Court: Maria Sharapova blows a kiss to the crowd on her last appearance at Wimbledon in 2015

There will be perfectly-timed put downs, gushing photo spreads, tired tabloid moans about the grunts and a stream of questions about Serena Williams.

It can only mean one thing: Maria Sharapova is back at Wimbledon.

Three years after her last appearance at the All England Club, and 14 years since the Russian won the title, launching the giggling teenager into the financial and media stratosphere, Sharapova's career is at a crossroads.

Now 31, Sharapova missed 2016 Wimbledon as she sat out a doping ban while injury scuppered her plans to play the qualifying tournament 12 months ago.

She is without a Slam title in four years, her fifth and most recent coming at the French Open in 2014 while she has won just one trophy -- a low-key end-of-season affair in Tianjin -- since her return from suspension.

However, there have been flashes of vintage Sharapova along the way and when she returned to Grand Slam tennis at the US Open last year, it was in some style.

Wearing a diamond-encrusted black number, she knocked out then world number two Simona Halep first up on the way to the last 16.

At this year's French Open, she comfortably disposed of sixth-ranked Karolina Pliskova for the loss of just three games before running out of steam in a quarter-final defeat to reigning Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza.

The fourth round in Paris should have pitted her against Williams but fans were denied a 22nd meeting between the pair when the American withdrew injured.

Williams has loomed large in the Sharapova story.

The American lost to her in the 2004 final at the All England Club and at the Tour Championships that same year.

Since then, however, Sharapova has lost 18 on the bounce to her career-long nemesis.

- Public battles -

That run includes a semi-final defeat at Wimbledon in her last appearance at the tournament in 2015.

Williams was also the victor in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Australian Open, Sharapova's last event before her 15-month doping ban kicked in.

Adding spice to this year's Wimbledon, the two clashed off the court at Roland Garros when Williams described claims made against her by Sharapova in her autobiography as "100 percent hearsay".

Sharapova fired back: "When you're writing an autobiography, I don't think there is any reason to write anything that's not true."

On the eve of Wimbledon five years ago, they were trading barbs again when Williams gave an explosive interview to Rolling Stone magazine.

"She begins every interview with 'I'm so happy. I'm so lucky' ? it's so boring," said Williams without namechecking the Russian.

"She's still not going to be invited to the cool parties. And, hey, if she wants to be with the guy with a black heart, go for it."

The 'black heart' was a not so subtle reference to Bulgarian tennis player Grigor Dimitrov, a rumoured former boyfriend of Williams, who was then dating Sharapova.

A few days later, Sharapova aimed a trademark icy riposte at Williams who is now a seven-time Wimbledon winner.

"If she wants to talk about something personal, maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids," she said in reference to Patrick Mouratoglou, who is still Williams's coach but was reportedly her boyfriend at the time as well.

Fifteen years after making her Wimbledon bow as a 16-year-old, Sharapova knows that with a game made for grass, a return of just the Wimbledon title is meagre.

She has been back to the final only once since 2004, losing 6-3, 6-4 to Petra Kvitova in 2011.

There have also been some embarrassing howlers -- in 2008, losing to Alla Kudryatseva, ranked 154, then to world number 45 Gisela Dulko in 2009 and to Michelle Larcher de Brito, a 131st-ranked Portuguese qualifier in 2013.

Now ranked 24 in the world, Sharapova heads to Wimbledon without any competitive grasscourt action having pulled out of Birmingham last week.

"I need to take care of my body and make sure I stay healthy," said the Russian who still managed to get some time on Centre Court this week.

She wasn't practicing but was giving Canadian ice hockey legend Sidney Crosby a guided tour.

Queen of Centre Court: Maria Sharapova blows a kiss to the crowd on her last appearance at Wimbledon in 2015

Back then: Serena Williams celebrates beating Maria Sharapova in the 2015 semi-final