Former world number one Maria Sharapova continues her comeback after a 15-month suspension for taking meldonium. The Russian is currently ranked at 262 in the world, and she returned to competitive action at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart. Sharapova was a three-time champion at that event, losing to Kristina Mladenovic in the semifinals.
It was the first match she lost since losing to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open last year. The five-time Grand Slam winner was previously described as a "Cow on Ice" on clay but her movement on the red dirt has significantly improved. Sharapova has won two of her five Slam titles at the French Open in 2012 and 2014. Meanwhile, Sharapova won the Mutua Madrid Open in 2014, and the Russian will be looking to get more matches under her belt.
Sharapova's second round opponent at the Mutua Madrid Open will be the struggling Eugenie Bouchard. It's hard to believe that Bouchard had a breakthrough year in 2014 as she reached back-to-back Grand Slam semifinals at the Australian Open and French Open. The Canadian also reached her maiden Slam final at Wimbledon, however, the downfall began in 2015 for Bouchard.
The former world number five failed to defend the points she amassed the previous year, with a host of early exits and loss of confidence along with an unfortunate concussion caused at the US Open, who knows how far Bouchard would have gone in New York, had she not slipped on a wet floor in the changing rooms, which halted her progress.
The good news for Bouchard is that she is only 23-years-old, and time is still on her side to achieve her goals and potentially win a Grand Slam. Furthermore, in 2017, Bouchard reached the semifinals in Brisbane losing to Johanna Konta and lost to Coco Vandeweghe in the third round of the Australian Open. After that two lossess, the 2014 French Open semifinalist lost in the first round, five successive times dating back to February.
How they got here
The former world number one began her campaign on Day Two of the Mutua Madrid Open against 17th seed Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, following the withdrawal of Agnieszka Radwanska due to a foot injury. Nevertheless, Sharapova had a tough first round encounter with the Australian Open semifinalist, and the Russian recovered from a set down to defeat the Croat, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0. Bouchard also had a three-set tussle on Day One at the Caja Magica with Alize Cornet. The Canadian recorded her first victory since the Australian Open defeating the erratic Frenchwoman, 6-4, 4-6, 6-4.
The 2014 champion and Bouchard have met on four occasions, and the five-time Grand Slam winner has won all four of their encounters. Sharapova defeated the current world number 60, 6-2, 6-0 in their second round meeting at the Miami Open in 2013, and she followed this up with a 6-2, 6-4 victory in the second round of the French Open also in 2013.
The duo would meet for the third time, and for the second consecutive year it was at the French Open, however, it was at the business end of the tournament. It was in the semifinals and it was a closer encounter, which Sharapova eventually prevailed, 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, and she went on to win her second French Open title in the process. Sharapova and Bouchard last met in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in 2015, which the Russian thrashed Bouchard, 6-3, 6-2, but Sharapova reached the final and lost to Serena Williams.
This encounter has a little narrative to it. Bouchard used to be a fan of Sharapova's when she was a youngster, and looked up to the Russian. However, the 2014 Wimbledon finalist has not held back her opinion's on her former heroine's return to tennis.
"She's a cheater and ... I don't think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again," The Canadian further elaborated, "It's so unfair to all the other players who do it the right way and are true. I think from the WTA 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 (Sharapova is) definitely not someone I can say I look up to any more."
Sharapova will not let Bouchard's comments bother her, and as usual, the Russian will let her tennis to the talking. The five-time Grand Slam champion has a good serve but double faults are inevitable and are her achilles heel after having career-threatening shoulder surgery. Sharapova will use her height as an advantage and she will try to push Bouchard, firmly behind the baseline in this match and use her forehands to do some damage.
Like Sharapova, Bouchard likes to dictate play in her matches as the aggressor, however, her forehand and backhand have their flaws as she sometimes likes to rush her play, in order to finish off points quickly. Nevertheless, the 23-year-old will need to throw in some drop shots to get Sharapova off the baseline, and Bouchard will need to take advantage of any weak second serves, Sharapova may drop in.
This will be the fourth match scheduled on the Manolo Santana court at not before 8pm local time, and the winner of this match will play world number one Angelique Kerber or Katerina Siniakova in the third round.
Prediction: Sharapova in straight sets.