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Timely return for Sharapova with Serena out of the equation

Five-time grand slam champion Maria Sharapova will finally get the chance to let her tennis do the talking in Stuttgart this week.

MariaSharapovacropped
Five-time grand slam champion Maria Sharapova

Maria Sharapova's rivals may not like it, but the five-time grand slam champion is back and she could hardly be returning at a better time.

Members of the tennis fraternity have long been voicing their disapproval over decisions to gift the former world number one a wildcard to make an instant return at the Stuttgart Open this week.

Tournament organisers have also given Sharapova a place in the Madrid Open and the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome next month, which has not gone down well with many of her fellow professionals.

The sporting world was rocked when a sombre Sharapova announced last March that she failed a drugs test at the 2016 Australian Open, testing positive for meldonium.

She was banned for two years, but that was reduced to 15 months after the 30-year-old appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Sponsors cut ties with Sharapova following her startling revelation at a press conference in Los Angeles, where she took "full responsibility" for not realising that meldonium - or mildronate as she knew it - had been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of banned substances.

The two-time French Open champion remains banned up until midnight on Tuesday, just hours before she will step back onto the court to face Roberta Vinci in the first round in Germany.

Vinci, Agnieszka Radwanska, Caroline Wozniacki and Andy Murray are among the players to have let it be known that they are not impressed with wildcards being dished out so freely.

Sharapova's agent, Max Eisenbud, accused "journeyman" rivals of being threatened by the global icon's imminent return to the WTA Tour and thinks they are concerned that she is capable of denying them a major title if a wildcard is granted for the French Open.

And although it is three years since she won a grand slam title, Sharapova should have nothing to fear as she attempts to return to the peak of her powers.

The 35-time WTA Tour champion may well have already experienced the pinnacle of her long career, but Serena Williams and Roger Federer have proved age is no barrier.

And with old foe and world number one Williams out of the equation after announcing she is expecting her first child, Sharapova's comeback is very timely.

Sharapova holds career head-to-head advantages over Angelique Kerber (4-3), Venus Williams (5-3), Karolina Pliskova (1-0) and Garbine Muguruza (3-0) - each of the non-Serena grand slam finalists since she was suspended from the game.

Kerber slipped off the top of the rankings this week, having failed to rediscover the sort of form that earned her two grand slam titles last year, and there is no dominant force in the women's game.

Like it or not, Sharapova's presence back on the tour brings star quality and plenty of intrigue. And she is more than capable of making up for lost time.

All eyes will be on the Russian following a lengthy absence from the court and she revels in being under the spotlight, so you cannot help but think there is plenty more to come from a player who burst onto the scene by winning Wimbledon at the tender age of 17 back in 2004.

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