STUTTGART: Maria Sharapova returns from a 15-month doping ban on Wednesday with tournament promoters 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 onto centre court at the Stuttgart Porsche Arena at 1630 GMT to face Italian veteran Roberta Vinci, she will, as always, be a polarising figure, her notoriously frosty detachment ratcheted up to maximum chill.
It will be her first match 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 here 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.
Stuttgart was 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.
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 or 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.
– ‘Ground zero’ –
“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.
On the eve of the Stuttgart tournament, world number eight Radwanska made similar remarks — and was then placed in the draw as Sharapova’s potential second round opponent. However, Radwanska fell in the first round on Tuesday to Ekaterina Makarova.
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 May 15.
There is speculation that Paris might meet her half way by granting a wildcard into the qualifying tournament instead.
As Sharapova was still banned until Wednesday, she had not been allowed onto the tournament site and was forced to make her own practice arrangements at a suburban public club in Stuttgart.
However, she still has powerful advocates in the sport including WTA chief Steve Simon.
“You have to look at how other leagues and tours have handled players who have come back,” Simon told BBC Sport.
“They come right back to the team and start playing… she is starting at ground zero.”