Why Maria Sharapova's career is far from over

In the wake of Wednesday's news that Maria Sharapova must sit out two years for her use of meldonium, it will be fashionable to say her tennis career is over.

A week ago at the French Open, I had this precise conversation with some spirited colleagues.

"She'll be, what, 31, 32 years old, so how do you come back? What's the point?" Those were the initial, underlying questions.

Making a point -- a definitive statement -- when she returns is the point.

Regardless of the ultimate length of the ban, Sharapova will use her penalty as motivation. She'd love to show the ITF, the tribunal, the braying hounds of the media and those WTA players benefiting from her prolonged absence that she can still win tournaments, perhaps even a major or two.

You just know that nothing -- absolutely nothing -- would please her more.

Think of all Sharapova has at stake here: her career, her tennis legacy and, perhaps more important in her mind, a $25 million annual business empire to support. They are intertwined, of course, and that's why she will come back -- and, I suspect, come back strong.

Eighteen-time Grand Slam singles champion Chrissie Evert did not entirely agree with the premise.

"It seems unlikely that she could come back with the same hunger, and the competition will be more intense," Evert wrote in an email. "When she gets a real taste of normal life, will she want to?

"In saying that, she could prove all of us wrong."

Sharapova has won five Grand Slam singles titles with less talent than a number of players. Physically, she has struggled in recent years; she overcame a career-threatening shoulder surgery in 2008. But after her ranking plummeted to No. 126 in May 2009, she rallied to win the French Open for the first time in 2012 and again in 2014.

If Sharapova's appeal is unsuccessful, however, she would line up for -- of all tournaments -- the 2018 French Open, attempting to become a three-time champion at the age of 31. On the surface this might seem unlikely.

But wait. How old was Serena Williams when she came within two matches of capturing the calendar Grand Slam? Yes, she was 33 years old. How old was Williams when she reached the finals of this year's two Slams? A ripe old 34.

Though Martina Hingis and Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters walked away from the game (Henin and Clijsters both retired twice) when they still had the ability to win tournaments, Sharapova seems different to me. Those players left largely on their own accord, but Sharapova has been forced to the sideline. Her ban is an ugly mark, and I think she'll do everything she can to erase it.

In the midst of tweeting pictures of puppies and attending events on behalf of her candy company, Sharapova couldn't have missed the fact that Hingis, 35, is still a viable doubles player. She has won three times as many Grand Slam titles there than she did in singles, the most recent in mixed doubles with Leander Paes four days ago in Paris.

What will the 2018 landscape look like in women's tennis? Williams might well be gone, which is a good thing for Sharapova since she's 2-19 against the current world No. 1. Business considerations and legacy aside, if Williams is retired at that point, that could be the best argument to come back.

Victoria Azarenka -- Williams' most consistent competitor -- will be 28 at the 2018 French Open, but the Belarusian has been compromised by injuries. Garbine Muguruza, the fresh-faced Spaniard who broke through at Roland Garros at the age of 22, should be in her prime. Simona Halep (who will be 26) and Petra Kvitova (28) can expect to remain viable players.

If I'm Sharapova, this doesn't frighten me.

For what it's worth, her five Slams match the collective total of Azarenka, Muguruza, Halep and Kvitova.

We have seen protracted breaks benefit players. Andre Agassi and Williams benefited from some down times -- created by injuries or burnout -- and came back to be ranked No. 1. Physically, the layoff will help Sharapova recover from a lot of bumps and bruises.

I see Sharapova coming back in two years (or sooner if she wins an appeal) and playing with a vengeance. It feeds the business model, but it's also consistent with her feisty personality.