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Sharapova insists she is better person after victory on her return from drugs ban

 

By Eleanor Crooks

Maria Sharapova said she has "grown as a person" during her drugs ban after returning to competitive tennis last night, the former world number one beating Roberta Vinci 7-5 6-3 in the first round of the Stuttgart Open.

Sharapova was back in action at a tournament she has won three times courtesy of a wildcard just 24 hours after the end of her 15-month suspension for failing a drugs test.

The five-time Grand Slam champion tested positive for meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open and her original two-year ban was reduced on appeal.

Not all of her peers have welcomed her return but Sharapova received a good reception when she was introduced to the crowd and subsequently walked out on court in Germany.

"It's the best feeling in the world, those first few moments before you enter the arena," said the former Wimbledon champion.

"It's been a stage of mine since I was a young girl and to know I'd be walking back on it was something special and I've been waiting for this for a long time.

"I didn't know when I'd be back and I did other things in my life. I still kept in shape but I did put the racket away for a while.

"It was quite a lot of time out, probably the most since I had shoulder surgery. It's my first match in a while and you try to get the rhythm again because you're still rusty but when you're in the moment you try to block everything out and compete, and I'm a competitor.

"That's when I'm at my best, when I just be me and compete.

"I need to play points and games and sets and matches - all matches are important for me. It's a journey that officially started for me again today and I look forward to playing as many matches as I can.

"I feel like in the last 15 months I have really grown as a person and I feel I had to step up and do that."

It took the 30-year-old time to get into her stride but generally it looked like the same old Sharapova, with relentless aggression and heavy hitting off both the forehand and backhand sides.

Vinci, a finalist at the 2015 US Open, offered stubborn resistance but Sharapova's class told.

She will play fellow Russian Ekaterina Makarova in the second round.

Meanwhile, Johanna Konta put a difficult weekend behind her to reach the second round of the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart.

The British number one travelled to Germany from Constanta, where she left the court in tears and was accused of gamesmanship during Great Britain's fiery Fed Cup play-off loss to Romania.

Konta did not find things easy against teenager Naomi Osaka but took advantage of her opponent's physical struggles - the Japanese-American becoming increasingly bothered by an abdominal injury - to run away with the third set and triumph 7-6 (7/5) 3-6 6-1.

Konta will face Latvia's Anastasija Sevastova in the second round.

The 25-year-old said: "I think obviously you could tell she was struggling, I hope everything is okay with her and she recovers quickly. It was just important for me to stay on my own game. Even though I lost the second set I didn't feel like I did much wrong."

Andy Murray has been given a walkover into the third round of the Barcelona Open after Bernard Tomic pulled out with a back problem.

Murray had been due to face the Australian yesterday having been given a bye in the first round.

Although it is positive news on the surface for Murray, the world number one entered the tournament to get more matches under his belt as he works his way back from an elbow injury.

The Scot returned to action last week in Monte Carlo after more than a month on the sidelines.

Murray will play the winner of the clash between Spaniards Albert Montanes and Feliciano Lopez in the third round.

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