STUTTGART, Germany — Even with eight of the world's top 10 players in the main draw, an unranked rival is grabbing all the headlines at an indoor clay-court event this week.
Handed a much-debated wild card, Maria Sharapova will return to competitive tennis at the Porsche Grand Prix on Wednesday evening, less than 24 hours after the end of her 15-month suspension for a doping offense.
The five-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 will have to rebuild her ranking from scratch, as only tournament results over the preceding 12 months count toward the WTA rankings.
With Serena Williams and Madison Keys the only top-10 players missing, the event starts with Sharapova still in the final days of her suspension. But the wild card for the three-time winner is hardly a surprise as the Russian is a long-term brand ambassador for the sports car manufacturer backing the tournament.
Organizers in Madrid and Rome followed Stuttgart's example. But French Open officials have postponed a decision until the week starting May 15, as to whether they will also offer the 2012 and 2014 champion a place in its main draw.
Some questions and answers about Sharapova's return:
WHAT WAS SHARAPOVA BANNED FOR?
Sharapova initially was given a two-year suspension after testing positive for heart drug meldonium at last year's Australian Open. She had her ban reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled that Sharapova 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 WADA that it added the drug to its banned list as per January 1, 2016.
HOW HAVE PLAYERS REACTED TO HER WILD CARD?
The Stuttgart organizers' announcement in January sparked a debate which has hardly cooled, three months later. Caroline Wozniacki said "It's disrespectful to other players." Dominika Cibulkova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Andy Murray also spoke out publicly against wild cards for players who return from doping bans. German players, led by two-time defending Stuttgart champion Angelique Kerber, have also voiced criticism. German Fed Cup captain Barbara Rittner said at the weekend that "Sharapova should have started from zero again," meaning entering smaller tournaments and the qualification stage of the bigger events.
SO WHO IS THE VICTIM OF SHARAPOVA'S WILD CARD?
Julia Goerges. The 2011 Stuttgart champion would have been an obvious choice for German organizers but the 46th-ranked player will now miss the event. Playing Fed Cup in Ukraine at the weekend, Goerges couldn't enter the qualifying stages in Stuttgart. Fellow German player and last year's finalist, Laura Siegemund, did get one of the three wild cards, alongside Sharapova and Johanna Konta. Siegemund said organizers "should try to use the wild cards for helping German players who otherwise couldn't take part. Julia Goerges played for our country this weekend, but that basically means that she scored an own goal."
HOW IS SHARAPOVA PREPARING FOR HER COMEBACK?
According to her social media posts, Sharapova traveled to Germany last Friday. She has been training in the hall of a local tennis club, Sillenbuch. As a banned player, she has no access to official tournament facilities until Wednesday, and has obviously been missing from Monday's players' presentation party on center court.
WHO WILL SHARAPOVA PLAY IN STUTTGART?
Roberta Vinci is her opponent in the first round. Sharapova outplayed the Italian both times they met, winning 6-0, 6-1 and 6-2, 6-1, respectively, though both matches were on hardcourt and the most recent was five years ago. If she advances, Sharapova could face an intriguing second-round match against Radwanska, who spoke out firmly against the Russian's wild card last week. There will be "extreme pressure on Maria," according to the formerly fourth-ranked Anke Huber, who is in the organizing committee. "You don't return on court after 15 months and just play as if nothing has happened. Even if she wins her first match, she will still feel tight in the second."