STUTTGART, Germany, Apr 26 – Maria Sharapova made her controversial return from a 15-month doping ban on Wednesday as the Russian superstar took on Italian veteran Roberta Vinci at Stuttgart’s WTA tournament.
The former world number one, wearing an orange top and lilac-coloured skirt, looked nervous as she walked out to warm applause for her first match since testing positive for meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open.
She was given a wildcard to play at the Stuttgart tournament which she has won three times.
Her initial two-year suspension was cut to 15 months but the 30-year-old is now without a world ranking and requires wildcards from tournaments.
Her return in Stuttgart has divided 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 tournament 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.
– ‘Ground zero’ –
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.
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.
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 on May 16.
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.”