Maria Sharapova returns from a 15-month doping ban on Wednesday with promoters of the Stuttgart tournament drooling over profit margins while rivals condemn the smooth road prepared for the Russian superstar’s rehabilitation.
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She looked relaxed while training at the tournament venue for the first time on Wednesday morning, having had to practise at a tennis hall on the outskirts of Stuttgart since Friday under the rules of her ban.
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.
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