It’s been almost six years since Maria Sharapova was world No.1 and a decade since she won the Australian Open, but the Russian still hopes to achieve both once more as she rebuilds her tennis career.
Sharapova is back in Australia for the first time since being banned after a doping violation at the 2016 Open.
The 15-month suspension followed her positive test for Meldonium, which had been banned since the start of that year.
She was controversially back on Margaret Court Arena chatting with Hamish McLachlan on Thursday night, with Open officials copping worldwide condemnation for the interview broadcast on the Seven Network.
Social media was abuzz as Sharapova’s failed drugs test was the elephant in the room, with McLachlan failing to mention the sensational breach, preferring to call the former world No.1’s absence from the tour as “time off”.
As international media slammed the decision to have Sharapova walk the trophy on court, tournament director Craig Tiley defended the Open’s stance – and the five-time grand slam champion.
“We wanted to have a former champion,” Tiley said.
“The challenge we always have this week is the Sydney event and the Hobart event.
“In fairness to Maria, the adjudication has occurred on that.
“It’s the 10-year anniversary of her winning (in Melbourne), the 30-year anniversary of Melbourne Park and the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King, since she’s won it.
“She deserved the opportunity.”
Sharapova took the opportunity to reveal her ambition to return to the very top of the women’s rankings.
“That is the ultimate goal, but I realise the depth of the game,” the 30-year-old said.
“You have many different champions (on the women’s tour) and there’s a lot of ups and downs … but it’s anyone’s to grab.
“I certainly hope I can put myself in that position … because I’ve been there and have delivered on those moments.”
Sharapova is ranked 47th in the world and comes to Melbourne Park without the protection of a seeding for the first time since debuting in 2003, a year before she stunned Serena Williams in the Wimbledon final.
She drew Germany’s Tatjana Maria in the first round of the Open.
Should she progress, Sharapova is likely to face 14th seed Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia in the second round and fellow former champion Angelique Kerber in the third round.
She said it was “incredibly special” to be back at Melbourne Park after being forced to watch the 2017 tournament from home.
“I watched the whole tournament and I remember it very well,” she said.
Sharapova was ill when Serena Williams won the tournament, defeating her sister in the final.
“I was sick in bed with a big box of tissues, hoping I would be putting myself back on the court and through that screen next year,” she said.
“That’s why being here is incredibly special, to be on this court.”