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Sharapova takes first step forward

STUTTGART, Germany (AFP) – 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.