STUTTGART, Germany (AP) – Maria Sharapova returned to professional tennis on Wednesday after a 15-month doping ban, completing a one-hour training session on an empty center court less than 10 hours before her first competitive match since January 2016.
Handed a much-debated wild card, Sharapova will play Roberta Vinci in the opening round of the Porsche Grand Prix.
The five-time Grand Slam champion and former No. 1 hasn’t played since losing to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of last year’s Australian Open. Wednesday’s match will be her first on clay since the 2015 French Open.
Joined by coach Sven Groeneveld and hitting partner Alex Kuznetsov, Sharapova stepped on court in the Porsche Arena at 9:13 a.m. (0713 GMT).
After taking off her training jacket, she immediately began hitting balls from the service line, and later worked through usual practice routines. Sipping on a bottle of water, Sharapova left the court after 61 minutes.
Because her suspension ended only at midnight, Sharapova had not been allowed to use official tournament facilities before, forcing her to visit a local tennis club in Stuttgart for training since last weekend.
Last year, Sharapova tested positive for the banned substance meldonium. She had her initial two-year ban reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled that the Russian 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 the World Anti-Doping Agency that it added the drug to its banned list on Jan. 1, 2016.