Maria Sharapova has “completely changed” as a person during her exile from tennis, her physiotherapist has claimed.
And former France rugby star Jerome Bianchi said the Russian is driven to show her new self as she plays her first Grand Slam match for 19 months at the US Open on Tuesday.
Sharapova ended a 15-month ban for doping in April but her comeback has been hit by injuries and controversies – and the world No.146 last played in Stanford last month when she withdrew after one match because of a left forearm injury.
She faces a tough opening match on Tuesday against world No.2 Simona Halep – starting midnight UK time on Eurosport.
The five-time Grand Slam winner, now 30, has kept a low-profile and declined to give a pre-tournament press conference.
But Bianchi, who has worked with her since 2013, insisted the world will see a different Sharapova.
He told L’Equipe: “Very quickly (after her suspension) she told us: ‘I don’t want to finish like that. I want to give another image of myself – this is not me. We are going to do that and we are going to start’.
“She didn’t want revenge – she doesn’t work like that. Tennis missed her, she wants to play and I think she is enjoying herself more on the court. It is another Maria Sharapova. As a person, she has completely changed – she is no longer the same person. After that, it will be hard to change things on the circuit but she is open to it.”
The Russian has never been popular – and Eugenie Bouchard called her “a cheater” on her return from her drug ban.
But without the pregnant Serena Williams, she is the biggest draw in the women’s draw where any of the top eight can end the US Open as world No.1.
She has beaten Halep in all six of their previous meetings, the last in 2015. The Romanian said: “I feel I’m ready to face her again.”
In an interview on the US Open website, 2006 champion Sharapova said: “I haven’t had the best preparation, if we’re really being honest. After healing for many weeks and skipping Wimbledon, and now to skip the warm-up tournaments, is disappointing.
“I’m coming in with no matches. But I have had the experience of that position before. I have to bring that back.”