Maria Sharapova returns to professional tennis today. DPA/PA Images
you've gotta see her

Sharapova returns to professional tennis today, 15 months after revealing positive drugs test

However, plenty of players aren’t happy that she is being granted wildcard entries into tournaments.

MARIA SHARAPOVA RETURNS from a 15-month doping ban today with promoters of the Stuttgart tournament drooling over profit margins while rivals condemn the smooth road prepared for the Russian superstar’s rehabilitation.

When the former world number one and five-time Grand Slam title winner walks on to centre court this afternoon to face Italian veteran Roberta Vinci she will be a polarising figure.

She looked relaxed while training at the tournament venue for the first time this morning, having had to practise at a tennis hall on the outskirts of Stuttgart since Friday under the rules of her ban.

Her match against Vinci will be her first since a quarter-final loss to bitter rival Serena Williams at the 2016 Australian Open.

Just weeks after that defeat Sharapova announced she had tested positive for meldonium.

An initial two-year suspension was cut to 15 months and the 30-year-old is now without a world ranking, requiring wildcards from tournaments and dividing opinion just as she has done ever since she burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old Wimbledon winner in 2004.

“For Maria it will certainly have been hard to have been on the outside for so long,” said former world number one Kim Clijsters, speaking in Stuttgart.

“Let’s see how she presents herself here — there is a world of difference between training and tournaments.”

Stuttgart is the first event to hand her a wildcard, which was not surprising as the event is sponsored by Porsche, one of the Russian’s many high-profile personal sponsors.

“I gave her a wildcard with a clear conscience,” said tournament director Markus Guenthardt.

“The spectators are looking forward to seeing Maria.”

Forthcoming tournaments in Madrid and Rome have followed suit.

With the likes of Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Petra Kvitova sidelined — and potential heir Eugenie Bouchard struggling — women’s tennis needs pulling power and Sharapova ticks all the boxes.

However, many rivals say that having committed a doping violation, she should be rubbing shoulders with the sport’s lower orders in qualifying, grinding out a path back to the big time.

“She shouldn’t have been given a wildcard, neither here nor in Rome nor Madrid,” said Vinci.

She is an awesome player, a champion, personally I have nothing against her. She has paid for her mistake, but she should have had to go through qualification, without any help.

“After two or three tournaments (with wildcards) she could be in the top 30 again.”

Vinci, the world number 36 who has taken just four games off Sharapova in two defeats, was echoing the opinions of Andy Murray, Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki in demanding the Russian work her way back into the game.

World number five Simona Halep, the fourth seed in Stuttgart, also believes that handing Sharapova a wildcard sends completely the wrong signal.

“I can’t support what the tournament director has done but in my opinion, for children and young players, it’s not OK to help players who were banned for doping with wildcards,” said the Romanian.

Three-time Stuttgart champion Sharapova, never one for cosy locker room chat, will not be concerned by what’s being said as she has a bigger goal — a place at the French Open, the second Grand Slam of the year which she has won twice.

Roland Garros organisers say they will make a decision on a wildcard for the main draw by the week of 15 May.

There is speculation that Paris might meet her halfway by granting a wildcard into the qualifying tournament instead.

– © AFP 2017 

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