RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. (AP) - When Maria Sharapova realized her tennis career could be ended by what she claims was an accidental doping violation, the former world No. 1 decided she had to fight.
"When you love what you do, and you do it with passion and integrity ... then you know what you stand for and who you are, and that's why I fought so hard to get that back," Sharapova said.
Sharapova believes she triumphed over injustice when she managed to get her doping ban reduced to 15 months last October. The five-time Slam winner plans to return to competition next month at Stuttgart.
Although the Russian-born Sharapova realizes she's closer to the end of her career than the beginning, she told a women's sports conference Tuesday that she couldn't accept the initial two-year suspension levied by the International Tennis Federation. The Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced her ban.
One of the world's wealthiest and best-known female athletes has been idle since the 2016 Australian Open, where she tested positive for meldonium, an over-the-counter Latvian drug of dubious cardiac benefit.
The substance was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency earlier that year, but Sharapova claims she missed the memo instructing her to stop using it after 10 years.
"You always want to end your career or a chapter in your life on your terms and in your voice," Sharapova said. "And to be in a moment where you felt like it could have ended on someone else's terms was very difficult for me to accept. That's why I fought so hard for the truth to be out. You don't realize how much you love something, how much something means to you, until you lose it for some time."
Sharapova took questions only from moderator Julie Foudy at the ANA Inspiring Women in Sports Conference, a gathering of athletes and prominent professionals preceding the LPGA's first major of the season at Mission Hills Country Club. The conference was produced by IMG, the sports and entertainment conglomerate that represents Sharapova.
Despite the tightly controlled nature of Sharapova's appearance, she went into detail on many aspects of her life during her suspension. While traveling extensively with friends and eating countless dinners with family, she also dabbled in university classes at Harvard and in London, and she served brief internships everywhere from Nike to the NBA, where she shadowed Commissioner Adam Silver.
"I learned that life is OK without tennis," Sharapova said. "Life can be OK, which is a scary thought, because when you've done something for so long, you always think of, 'Well, how am I going to feel when I don't have that?' It gave me a chance to realize that you're the one that creates your life, and you create your own opportunities."
Sharapova also revealed she has been training intensely for four months to get her momentum back. Tuesday was a rare day off, thanks to her trip from her beachside home near Los Angeles to the desert.
"In tennis, you lose a lot of hand-eye coordination," Sharapova said. "Practice is never the same as match play. It's really different to face someone on the other side of the net. It's a very different feeling."
Sharapova will return as a wild card entry in Stuttgart's Porsche Tennis Grand Prix, a tournament she won three consecutive times from 2012-14 before Angelique Kerber won the past two.
Sharapova's suspension ends on the third full day of play at the tournament, and she won't be allowed even to set foot in Porsche Arena before Wednesday, April 26, the day of her first match.
Women's No. 1 Kerber, Dominika Cibulkova and men's No. 1 Andy Murray are among several players angered by Sharapova being allowed to resume her career in main draws without playing her way back through qualifiers.
The question will receive even more scrutiny when the French Open and possibly Wimbledon must decide whether to give a free pass to Sharapova, a former champion of both events.
Earlier this month at Indian Wells, Kerber called it "a little bit strange" for Sharapova to be allowed into Stuttgart and to start play on a Wednesday, although that tournament typically holds a handful of first-round matches on Wednesdays.
Sharapova sidestepped a question about how other players will perceive her comeback. She has acknowledged having few friends in the WTA locker room, preferring to keep her friendships outside tennis.
"I don't know if there's much that I can control," Sharapova said. "I think what I can control, and what I always have controlled, is what I can do, and how I can go out there and how I can compete, and how I can manage my career and my time and what I do with it, and the way I play tennis. And that is bigger than any other word that I can ever say. I think actions speak so much louder than what we could ever talk about."
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