Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia shakes hands after winning her match against Maria Sharapova of Russia during their fourth round match. REUTERS pic

NEW YORK: Maria Sharapova described her return to Grand Slam center-stage after a 15-month doping ban as “a great ride” despite her US Open campaign ending in the fourth round Sunday.

The former world number one and five-time major winner fell 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 to Latvian 16th seed Anastasija Sevastova.

It was her first appearance at a Slam since the 2016 Australian Open, where she failed a drugs test and was kicked out of the sport until April this year.

“It’s been a really great ride in the last week,” said the 30-year-old Russian.

“Ultimately I can take a lot from this week. It’s great to get that major out of the way. It was an incredible opportunity. I’m very thankful for it. I did my best. I can be proud of that.”

Sharapova, the world number 146, had needed a wild card into the tournament, where she was champion in 2006.

The US Tennis Association’s decision was not met with universal approval.

Former world number one Caroline Wozniacki claimed it was “unacceptable” for a player with a doping suspension to be given prime-time spots on the prestigious Arthur Ashe Stadium.

Sharapova played all of her four matches in the 24,000-capacity arena including her first-round defeat of world number two Simona Halep.

Sharapova insisted Sunday that she had nothing to prove to her critics.

“I feel like I’m really beyond that,” she said. “I think there’s only a way to show it on the court, because that’s what really matters to me.

“I have so many things in my life but there’s a desire to keep going for more and to keep living through these moments out on these courts.

“That’s special and that’s meaningful. As long as I have that desire, I’ll be there. That’s what’s important to me.”

Sevastova, a quarter-finalist in New York also in 2016, said she was happy to see Sharapova playing again and that she felt no desire to prove a point on behalf of her peers.

“I think some players have that. I don’t have that. I have great respect for her,” said the 26-year-old.

Sharapova needed treatment on a blistered right hand in the final set but she insisted it was not a factor in her defeat.

Her statistics, however, made for sober reading – 42 winners and 51 unforced errors to only 14 by Sevastova, whose 21 winners were half Sharapova’s total.

Next on the schedule for Sharapova is the WTA event in Beijing at the end of September as she attempts to build her ranking to ensure direct entry into the 2018 Australian Open.

In April next year, Sharapova will be 31 and she admitted that she has even surprised herself to be still playing even considering her enforced absence from the sport.

“When I was in my middle 20s, I didn’t think that my body would be ready to compete at such a level but I just got a completely new appreciation of what the body can do at 30 or past 30,” she said.

“I can take a lot of examples from champions that are still playing, competing, and doing incredibly well, and that’s inspiring.” — AFP

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