One fellow player labelled her “a cheater” and she is purported to be an unpopular figure in the locker room. But despite her doping ban, Maria Sharapova remains a perennial crowd favorite in China.

“Welcome back goddess,” read one banner at the China Open in Beijing this week. A Russian flag, meanwhile, bore the words: “I got your back Maria.”

The 30-year-old Russian was in the Chinese capital this week for the first time since returning to tennis in April after serving a 15-month suspension for taking the banned substance meldonium.

The former world number one is now 104 in the rankings and needed a wildcard to make it to the China Open, where she was set to take on world number two Simona Halep later on Wednesday.

Sharapova’s return to the tennis circuit has divided opinion. Canadian Eugenie Bouchard, one of her biggest critics, labeled the five-time Grand Slam champion “a cheater” who should never have been allowed to play again.

Try telling that to Sharapova’s fans in Beijing, where – along with Rafael Nadal – she has been the biggest draw by far of the week.

Suky, 26, flew from Xiamen in eastern China to see her hero in the flesh for the first time.

Tennis player Maria Sharapova poses at the premiere for "Battle of the Sexes" in Los Angeles, California, U.S., September 16, 2017. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni
Maria Sharapova poses at the premiere of the movie Battle of the Sexes in Los Angeles, California, on September 16, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Mario Anzuoni

With the event coinciding with a National Day holiday marking the founding of communist China, Chinese flags are being flown everywhere. But the only flag on Suky’s right cheek was a smudged Russian tricolour. On her left arm and chest, meanwhile, she had scrawled her version of Sharapova’s signature in black biro.

“I love Maria Sharapova,” she said. “She’s fair and beautiful, and so powerful and determined, she never gives up.”

But what about that doping ban? “I think that’s an American secret,” she replied, lowering her voice slightly.

Pushed to expand on her conspiracy theory, she pulled out her smartphone and tapped some Chinese into a translation app.

“Political intrigue” popped up on the screen in English. She declined to go into further detail.

‘She’s beautiful and so tall’

Vivian and Lucia, both 20 and volunteers at China’s biggest annual tennis event, are also diehard Sharapova fans.

“She fights to win every game, even when it’s difficult and hard,” said Vivian, a student who only volunteered so she could catch a glimpse of the Russian. “She’s also beautiful and so tall. We walked past her and I was like, ‘Gosh!'”

So that makes up for the ban?

“So what? It doesn’t matter,” Lucia chipped in. “It’s in the past. So you never made a mistake?”

Sharapova, who according to reports is unpopular with other players because of her supposedly lofty attitude, had an initial two-year ban reduced to 15 months after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled she was not “an intentional doper.”

“She fights to win every game, even when it’s difficult and hard. She’s also beautiful and so tall. We walked past her and I was like, ‘Gosh!'”

On her first appearance back, at Stuttgart, in April, the crowd gave her a polite reception and then on her Grand Slam return – at the US Open – audiences were largely supportive.

If her Chinese fans are keen to look forward, the Russian is too, and in one press conference in Beijing she alluded to being “away from the game for a long time,”, without saying any more.

But in what is the sixth tournament of her stop-start comeback, she was more forthcoming when asked about the unwavering support she gets in China, where she won in 2014.

“It’s always really nice to have that welcome and it’s really special to see fans that take the time and effort to make signs, to come up with wording,” she said. “For them to put in that effort is very special. For them to cheer and welcome me back to Beijing is really nice.”

Agence France-Presse