Down the Line: Sharapova's back, Nadal rules, Murray flops, Kerber freefalling

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Sharapova lost to Mladenovic in the Stuttgart semis.

Last week in tennis was dominated by one thing and one thing only – the return of Maria Sharapova.

The Russian came back from her doping suspension playing some fine tennis, with an improved serve, and a hunger to prove a point.

She made it all the way to the semi-finals, beating Roberta Vinci, Ekaterina Makarova and Anett Kontaveit before losing a thriller to Kristina Mladenovic – who was one of the most vocal players to hit out at the Russian following the announcement of her failed test.

Sharapova, a two-time Roland Garros champion, is already odds-on favourite to win the French Open, even though she doesn’t even know if she’ll be allowed to play there or not.

The pressure is mounting on the organisers to decide where Sharapova should be given wildcard for the tournament. She fell just one win short of securing a place in the qualifying draw by her ranking and many believe if she does get invited to Roland Garros, it would be for the qualifying rounds.

That sounds like a solution that is a win-win for everyone. For the Sharapova camp, it helps feed her redemption story and how she’s willing to “work her way back” like many, including Andy Murray, suggested she should do.

For the organisers, they’re acknowledging a five-time grand slam winner, but are asking her to earn her place in the draw.  We’ll find out on May 16.

Here’s a look at the other happenings on tour last week…

Thumbs up

Rafael Nadal

Dare we say that vintage Rafael Nadal is back? The Spaniard has been stepping up his form with every passing week and he pulled off a ‘Double Decima’ – winning a 10th trophy in Monte Carlo then claiming a 10th crown in Barcelona, on a court that has been renamed after him.

He beat Dominic Thiem in the Barcelona final, and made it look easy, even though the Austrian was in fine form himself. There’s still action to be played in Madrid and Rome but Nadal is exactly where he wants to be ahead of the French Open.

Laura Siegemund

To those who thought her final showing in Stuttgart last year was a fluke, Siegemund has fired back by going one better and winning the title in her home city on Sunday, defeating Mladenovic in a third-set tiebreak.
Will she back it up at other tournaments, though? It’s her chance to show that she can.

Thumbs down

Andy Murray

Barcelona was meant to be the world No1’s opportunity to get back to winning ways, with a highly-anticipated final against Nadal expected to be the perfect test for him.
Instead, he struggled past Albert Ramos-Vinolas (who beat him in Monte Carlo), then lost to Thiem.
Madrid, with the flying balls and higher altitude, might bring more chances for him to get back on song.

Angelique Kerber

A change of surface has not done any good for the German, who continues to inexplicably freefall.
Granted, she lost to a player who almost won the tournament but still, the Kerber of 2016 is no where to be found. It’s time she hit the panic button.


Early clay season standouts

Beyond Nadal, you’d have to look at David Goffin, Dominic Thiem and Lucas Pouille as non-Big Four players who can make a real impact at the French Open.

Goffin had some magical moments in Monte Carlo, taking out Novak Djokovic and Thiem on his way to the semis. Thiem knocked out Andy Murray in Barcelona en route to the final, while Pouille grabbed his second career title in Budapest on Sunday.

Which one of them has the better chance of going deep in Paris? Possibly Thiem.

Is women’s tennis in trouble?

In the absence of Serena Williams (pregnant and still world No1), Petra Kvitova (recovering from a knife attack) and Victoria Azarenka (on maternity leave), Kerber is flopping, Simona Halep is flip-flopping, and even Karolina Pliskova lost her first round in Prague – her home city – on Monday to Camila Giorgi.

Will the lack of consistency of the top players cause serious damage to the WTA? Or should people just embrace the depth of the field and discover the lesser-known names, who actually have good game? I vote for the latter.

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