Halep, Cornet give Sharapova wild-card debate new impetus

STUTTGART, Germany (AP) A day before Maria Sharapova was to play her first tennis match since being banned for doping, the debate about the Russian's wild-card entry for the Porsche Grand Prix continued Tuesday.

Simona Halep and Alize Cornet joined the growing legion of players criticizing tournament organizers for offering Sharapova a direct spot in their main draws.

''For the kids, for the young players, it is not OK to help with a wild card the player that was banned for doping,'' said the fifth-ranked Halep, adding that ''it is not about Maria Sharapova here, but it is about all the players that are found doped.''

''I cannot support what the tournament director did, but also I cannot judge,'' said Halep, who is seeded fourth and plays Barbora Strycova in the second round.

Cornet went a step further in comments published by French sports daily L'Equipe.

''Generally speaking, I find it shameful that the WTA is promoting a player who tested positive after all. It's normal that people talk about her, she's an immense champion, but from there to promoting her return to such an extent ... I find that unjust,'' the 41st-ranked Frenchwoman said.

Sharapova's 15-month suspension for the use of meldonium after the heart drug became a banned substance at the beginning of 2016, ends Wednesday. The five-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 is scheduled to play Roberta Vinci in a first-round evening match at the tournament she won three times from 2012-14.

On Monday, Vinci joined the likes of Caroline Wozniacki, Dominika Cibulkova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Angelique Kerber in publicly opposing wild cards for players returning from a doping ban.

Kerber, the two-time defending champion, is the top-seeded player in Stuttgart. The seventh-seeded Radwanska fell to Ekaterina Makarova 6-2, 6-4 on Tuesday, leaving the Russian a second-round match against Sharapova or Vinci. Cibulkova pulled out of the event with a right wrist injury.

In other first-round play, the eighth-seeded Svetlana Kuznetsova edged Kiki Bertens 6-3, 5-7, 6-3. The Russian will next play last year's finalist Laura Siegemund, who defeated Shuai Zhang 6-2, 7-6 (4).

Besides Stuttgart, Sharapova has also been handed a free passage into the main draws at Madrid and Rome in May, but organizers of the French Open have yet to decide about an invitation for the Russian.

''I hope that (French Tennis Federation) president Bernard Guidicelli holds firm on what he initially said and doesn't offer her a wildcard for Roland Garros,'' Cornet said.

''A player who has tested positive should start from scratch like everyone else and win her place back. You shouldn't roll out the red carpet for her,'' she added. ''Unfortunately tennis remains a business ... but, morally, it's not good.''

While a growing number of players speak out against wild cards after doping bans, Sharapova also received some backing on Tuesday.

Karolina Pliskova pointed out that tennis needs characters like the Russian, even more now that Serena Williams has announced her pregnancy and won't play anymore until next year.

''Definitely it's a big thing for this tournament, not only for Stuttgart but for all the tournaments that are going to be next,'' the second-seeded Czech said. ''From the tournaments' side it's a big plus. Obviously when Serena is going to be out now, tennis definitely needs a star like (Sharapova) is so I don't have anything against it.''

Sharapova also got full support from another multiple Grand Slam winner and former No. 1, Kim Clijsters.

''She has done her punishment,'' the Belgian said. ''I was disappointed and surprised when the news came out but she's had the career that she's had and I don't think she needs to be punished more.''

Clijsters, who was tournament director of the Diamond Games in Antwerp when the event was last held in 2015, added that ''it's up to the tournaments whoever they want to give a wild card or not.''

The Belgian, who led the WTA rankings for 20 weeks in total, interrupted her career for two years and became a mother. Having won three of her four career Grand Slam titles after returning in 2009, Clijsters had no doubt that Sharapova could have an equally successful return to the circuit.

''I am sure it was really tough for her to be on the sideline for that long,'' Clijsters said. ''But in a week's time this news will be over and she will be back playing normally, and probably some of her best tennis.''

---

AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire in Paris contributed to this report.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.