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All eyes on Stuttgart as Sharapova poised for return

Tennis - Australian Open - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - 16/1/17 Italy's Roberta Vinci leaves the court after losing to Coco Vandeweghe of the U.S. in their Women's singles first round match. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo
Tennis - Australian Open - Melbourne Park, Melbourne, Australia - 16/1/17 Italy's Roberta Vinci leaves the court after losing to Coco Vandeweghe of the U.S. in their Women's singles first round match. REUTERS/Jason Reed/File Photo

By Martyn Herman

LONDON (Reuters) - Not much phases Roberta Vinci after 16 years on Tour but the maelstrom swirling around her opening match in Stuttgart against Maria Sharapova will test even the Italian's vast experience.

Her 946th singles might ordinarily have been one to chalk off and forget about but standing over the other side of the net on Wednesday will be the former world number one on her return from a 15-month doping ban.

Whatever else is happening on any other tennis court in the world will become irrelevant as Russian multi-millionaire Sharapova, who turned 30 last week, resumes a career that made her the world's richest sportswoman.

Debate still rages about Sharapova's crime and punishment.

While some say the five-times grand slam champion, initially banned for two years after testing positive for Meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open, has done her time some fellow players are angry the red carpet is being rolled out.

With no ranking after such a long period without swinging her racket in anger, Sharapova could have been forced to work her way back from the lower rungs of the tennis ladder.

Instead, with tournament chiefs and sponsors well aware of her ticket-selling appeal she has been handed wildcards into the claycourt events in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome.

Former world number one Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska have both cried foul, believing a player returning from a doping ban should have to do it the hard way.

Sharapova, whose defence was that she had not realised Meldonium had been added to a list of banned substances at the start of 2016, insisted the substance is as common as aspirin in Russia where it is known as Mildronate.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) agreed that Sharapova was not an intentional doper shortened her ban from two years to 15 months.

While admitting her mistake, Sharapova has hardly been full of contrition and has criticised the International Tennis Federation (ITF) for failing to notify her that Meldonium, a medication she said she had used for a number of years to treat health issues, had indeed been flagged up by WADA as 'performance enhancing'.

Only last week Sharapova's agent Max Eisenbud stoked the fires by saying the likes of Wozniacki and Radwanska were "journeyman" players hoping to benefit from Sharapova's exclusion.

Sharapova's prospective second-round clash in Stuttgart against Poland's Radwanska could be an awkward encounter.

A decision is expected soon on whether the French Tennis Federation (FFT) will fast-track the 2012 and 2014 Roland Garros champion into the French Open draw. Her only other route is to win the Stuttgart title so that she can boost her ranking to enter French Open qualifying.

What adds intrigue to Sharapova's return is that it comes at a time with the WTA Tour reeling from the news that world number one and 23-times major champion Serena Williams will not play again this year after announcing she is pregnant.

With twice Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova recovering from being stabbed, former number one Victoria Azarenka still to return from childbirth the cupboard looks a little bare when it comes to headline acts.

So while Sharapova's might get a lukewarm welcome in the locker room there is no question the money men will welcome her back with open arms, not least Porsche.

The German sports car giant is the lead partner of the Stuttgart event and also sponsor Sharapova.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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