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Maria Sharapova set for tennis return at Porsche Grand Prix after 15-month doping ban

Maria Sharapova will complete her return to tennis following a 15-month drug ban when she faces Italy’s Roberta Vinci at the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart on Wednesday (26 April).

The Russian has been handed a wildcard by the organisers, allowing her a place in the main draw and an opportunity to play her first competitive match since being banned by the International Tennis Federation for taking Meldonium — a heart disease drug.

The 30-year-old is due to take on 2015 US Open runner-up Vinci at 5:30pm BST on the day her ban expires.

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Sharapova will begin her Stuttgart campaign against world No36 Roberta Vinci of Italy. It will be the third meeting of their career and first since 2012.

Last October, Sharapova won an appeal to reduce the punishment from two years – permitting her to make an early return to the sport in which she has won five grand slam titles.

But the resumption of Sharapova’s career is not without controversy. Questions still remain over the initial case, which saw the right-hander test positive for Meldonium at the Australian Open – a substance she claimed to have taken for 10 years to treat a hereditary condition.

The drug was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency banned list for 2017 – a publication which is distributed to every player – but Sharapova said that neither she, nor members of her team, had read the document.

The use of the substance had previously been monitored by Wada and Sharapova had never previously indicated she was using the drug for medical purposes.

A succession of cases soon followed regarding the mystery substance, with many of those involved also hailing from Russia.

In spite of this, an appeal over her two-year ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport was successful and saw her punishment cut by nine months to 15. However, the ease at which she has been allowed to return to the tour has since been widely debated.

With her ban preventing her from playing enough events for her to benefit from a protected ranking, Sharapova has been handed direct entry into three events on the Women’s Tennis Association tour, starting in Stuttgart. The Madrid and Rome Masters – which run alongside the ATP events in the same cities – have also granted Sharapova a wildcard entry into their events despite her chequered past. None of the three remaining grand slam tournaments - the French Open, Wimbledon or the US Open - have yet declared whether she will be admitted.

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Maria Sharapova and Roberta Vinci

Vinci, Sharapova’s first opponent of her second coming, has led the criticism of tournaments for accommodating the former world number one, who, prior to her suspension, was the highest-paid female athlete for 11 straight years.

"I don’t agree about the wildcard here and about the wildcard in Rome and the other tournaments," the 24-year-old said. "She made her mistakes for sure, but she paid and I think she can return to play - but without any wildcards."

The return of Sharapova coincides with the start of Serena Williams’ exile from the sport as she prepares to give birth to her first child. The American confirmed she was pregnant last week and would miss the rest of the campaign, but plans to return in 2018.

Nevertheless, it leaves women’s tennis without its biggest name, while Sharapova, now its most divisive and controversial figure, comes back out from the shadows and into the spotlight.

Mutoni Jolie

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