Sharapova returns to tennis after 15-month doping ban

Author: AP
FILE – In this Monday March 7, 2016 file photo, tennis star Maria Sharapova speaks about her failed drug test at the Australia Open during a news conference in Los Angeles. Maria Sharapova will find out the week starting May 15, 2017, if she can compete at the French Open, the French Tennis Federation said. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)

STUTTGART, Germany (AP) Maria Sharapova returned to professional tennis on Wednesday after a 15-month doping ban, completing a one-hour training session on an empty center court less than 10 hours before her first competitive match since January 2016.

Handed a much-debated wild card, Sharapova will play Roberta Vinci in the opening round of the Porsche Grand Prix.

The five-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 hasn’t played since losing to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of last year’s Australian Open. Wednesday’s match will be her first on clay since the 2015 French Open.

Joined by coach Sven Groeneveld and hitting partner Alex Kuznetsov, Sharapova stepped on court in the Porsche Arena at 9:13 a.m. (0713 GMT).

After taking off her training jacket, she immediately began hitting balls from the service line, and later worked through usual practice routines. Sipping on a bottle of water, Sharapova left the court after 61 minutes.

Because her suspension ended only at midnight, Sharapova had not been allowed to use official tournament facilities before, forcing her to visit a local tennis club in Stuttgart for training since last weekend.

Last year, Sharapova tested positive for the banned substance meldonium. She had her initial two-year ban reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled that the Russian bore “less than significant fault” in the case and that she could not “be considered to be an intentional doper.”

Sharapova had been taking meldonium for many years, but overlooked an announcement by the World Anti-Doping Agency that it added the drug to its banned list on Jan. 1, 2016.

Due to the suspension, Sharapova lost her ranking. But the three-time winner from 2012-14 was given direct entrance to main draw of the Stuttgart event. Organizers in Madrid and Rome followed the example and handed her a wild card for their events in May as well.

A growing number of players have spoken out against the invitations. On Tuesday, Simona Halep and Alize Cornet joined the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Dominika Cibulkova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Angelique Kerber and Sharapova’s first opponent, Vinci, in publicly opposing wild cards for players returning from a doping ban.

They say players should work their way back up the rankings by competing at smaller tournaments and through the qualifying stages of the bigger events, not by being given free passage into main draws.

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