STANFORD, Calif. -- Maria Sharapova has gotten a mixed reception from fellow pros after serving a 15-month suspension for taking a banned substance. But if Monday night at the Bank of the West Classic was any indication, she will be receiving nothing but cheers from tennis fans.
Playing a WTA match in the United States for the first time since March 2015, Sharapova beat American Jennifer Brady 6-1, 4-6, 6-0 in front of 2,187 overwhelmingly supportive fans at Stanford University. It was the biggest crowd at the tournament since 2009, when Sharapova made her first appearance there.
The only rude reception for the five-time Grand Slam champion came courtesy of her 22-year-old American opponent halfway through the match, when Sharapova lost focus and was pushed to a third set.
"I definitely felt like there was support and it's great to play so close to home," said Sharapova, who moved to Florida from Russia when she was 7. "It's been a while since I played in the States and it's a great feeling. I lived here since I was a young girl and I always feel really at home when I compete in the U.S."
The crowd might normally pull for an underdog like Brady, 22, who reached the fourth round of the Australian Open earlier this year. But not against the shrieking, high-slapping, fist-pumping, come on-screaming Sharapova. From the player introductions to the late-match changeovers, the vast majority of the support was directed toward the 30-year-old former No. 1, with shouts of "Let's go Maria" far outnumbering "Let's go Jen" and "USA."
The tennis community has been less welcoming. Stars such as Andy Murray, Angelique Kerber and Carolina Wozniacki have been critical of the unseeded Sharapova receiving wild cards in tournaments rather than having to play her way in through qualifying. Earlier Monday, Serena Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, told Omnisport that "part of punishment should be starting from zero, not receiving a helping hand through wild cards."
Sharapova earned her suspension for taking the banned drug meldonium. She returned for the recent clay court season, but suffered a hamstring tear in her third tournament back that has kept her out since mid-May.
A top 10 player at the time of her suspension, Sharapova is now ranked 171, putting tournaments like Bank of the West -- and soon the U.S. Open -- in a position to offer her a wild card if they wish to guarantee her a spot in the main draw.
From an economic perspective, offering Sharapova a wild card is a no-brainer -- more than a hundred fans were still milling around the players' exit two hours after the match. When she came out and saw the crowd, a surprised Sharapova joked that it was past her bedtime before stopping to sign oversized balls and take selfies.
Sharapova said that her extended absence has helped her understand what it means to have such a dedicated fan base.
"I knew that people would come up and ask for my autograph and say 'Congratulations on your career,'" Sharapova said. "But when you really think about fans waking up in the middle of the night to watch you play when they have an exam coming up in the morning, you really start to think about why they do that and how they idolize you and you give them something in their life to cheer for, and you're an example that they live by.
"As people were coming up to me and saying that they couldn't wait to see me back, it hit me really personally like it didn't before."