REUTERS-Maria Sharapova returned to the tennis court for two exhibition matches on Monday, her first appearance since testing positive for the banned substance meldonium at the Australian Open in January.
The Russian former world number one played at the World Team Tennis “Smash Hits” event in Las Vegas, which raises money for the Elton John Aids Foundation.
Sharapova, who has slipped to 93rd in the world rankings, partnered American Taylor Johnson and lost her first match to Martina Navratilova and Liezel Huber.
“It’s very special to be back on the court,” she told reporters before the match.
“It’s been about seven months since I’ve played in front of spectators and played in a stadium environment. Obviously, very thankful for the invitation, happy to be part of this cause.
“It’s been around for 24 years and it’s my first attendance. Thrilled to be part of it.”
Sharapova, whose ban was cut from two years to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration last week, can return to competition in April, one month before the French Open.
The 29-year-old, who teamed up with John McEnroe to beat Navratilova and Andy Roddick in her second match, acknowledged that the journey back would be a tough one.
“Yeah, I will look to play maybe a couple of exhibition events leading up to my first tournament in April,” she added.
“I don’t know what those will be, but I think that’s one of the things that will be really important because match play, you can never really replicate it. You can practise as much as you want but there’s nothing really like it.”