LONDON • Maria Sharapova will play her first match for nine months at a charity tennis event in Las Vegas next week, days after her competitive ban was reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Sharapova, who was suspended after testing positive for meldonium at the Australian Open in January, will play alongside Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova and Andy Roddick on Monday at the World Team Tennis Smash Hits event in support of Elton John's Aids foundation.
"I am really excited to get back on the court for a great cause," the Russian, who remains barred from tournaments until late April, said.
WTT Smash Hits defended the decision to invite Sharapova while she is serving a doping sanction, saying: "Tennis as a sport has a history of giving back, and all the players are focused on that."
Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam champion, will receive no appearance fee for her involvement and the International Tennis Federation (ITF) told The Times that it had no objection to her playing in an exhibition event.
RETURN DATE SOLE CONCERN
When you are going through such a tough period and so many ups and downs, that's not really what you are thinking about. It's about when I'm coming back. That wasn't something that was a focus of mine.
MARIA SHARAPOVA, on whether she was disappointed at the lack of support from her peers during her ban.
Earlier, the 29-year-old criticised the ITF for "attempting to make an example of her" during her doping ban and that it exhibited "a lack of neutrality in the dispute".
She also claimed that the ITF tried to ban her for four years.
But the London-based governing body hit back yesterday, defending its procedures and the tribunal which originally handed down a two-year ban.
"The ITF did not 'try to ban Ms Sharapova for four years'. The ITF took the position that it is the independent tribunal's responsibility to determine what the appropriate sanction should be," said an ITF statement released to the British Press Association.
"This included the decision as to whether Ms Sharapova met the requirements set out in the tennis anti-doping programme - which are the same as those in the Wada code - for a reduction from the default four-year suspension for the use of a non-specified substance such as meldonium."
Few of Sharapova's fellow players have come out in support of her since the ban was imposed, but the Russian said that she was not disappointed with the lack of public backing from her peers.
"When you are going through such a tough period and so many ups and downs, that's not really what you are thinking about," she told ESPN.
"It's about when I'm coming back. That wasn't something that was a focus of mine."
Richard Gasquet, the 30-year-old men's world No. 17 who served a 21/2-month ban after testing positive for cocaine in 2009, predicted that Sharapova would face a tough comeback.
"It's never easy to come back. It's quite a long ban to come back from. Mentally and physically it will be tough for her," he said.
Sharapova's former boyfriend, Bulgarian tennis player Grigor Dimitrov, suggested that she deserved her ban but said he had "zero doubts" she would make a successful return.
The CAS ruling found that she bore some degree of blame but "no significant fault" for failing to realise that meldonium had been added to the banned list, while the ITF was criticised for not doing enough to inform Sharapova of the change.
She will not be eligible to return to competition until April 26, meaning that she may require a wild card to qualify for the French Open and Wimbledon.
A spokesman for the All England Club said the decision on wild cards would take place "according to the usual protocols".
THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE