INDIAN WELLS (AFP) - The wild card tournament invitations awaiting Maria Sharapova when she returns from a 15-month doping ban next month has divided opinion among players at Indian Wells.
"This is, all over, a strange situation," Germany's Angelique Kerber said of the Stuttgart WTA tournament's decision to issue a wild card to Sharapova, who will play her first match since the 2016 Australian Open on April 26 - just hours after her ban for using meldonium ends.
"I don't know what to say about this because it's a little bit strange for the other players that somebody can just walk on site Wednesday and play Wednesday," added Kerber, who is set to return to world No. 1 after Serena Williams' withdrawal from the tournament.
"This is a German tournament," said Kerber, the reigning Stuttgart champion who indicated that there were plenty of German players who could benefit from a wild card.
Sharapova, without any world ranking to gain direct access to tournaments in the wake of her ban, has also been issued wild cards to play in Rome and Madrid.
She was also to meet with the French Tennis Federation to plead her case for a wild card at Roland Garros, where she is a two-time French Open champion, although federation officials have voiced reservations about issuing a wild card to someone convicted of a doping offence.
Men's world No. 8 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said he didn't think five-time Grand Slam winner Sharapova should get a French Open wild card.
"I would not do it," he said. "It's like if you give a sweet to a kid who did a bad thing, it's going to do it again. It sends the wrong message."
Men's world No. 1 Andy Murray hit out at the wild cards already issued to Sharapova, telling The Times last week that he believed a player "should have to work your way back" from a drugs ban.
Asked about it again at Indian Wells, Murray acknowledged that the logistics of accommodating a star of Sharapova's magnitude could be difficult for the lower level tournaments she would need to play to rebuild her ranking.
"The tournaments are well within their rights to give a wild card, there's nothing saying they can't," he said.
"There's no rule in place, so the tournaments are going to do what they think is best for their event. But should you get a wild card into every event when you come back? I'm not sure about that. That's something that maybe should be looked at."
Romanian Simona Halep thinks Sharapova's past achievements justify the wild cards.
"She was No. 1 in the world and won Grand Slam titles," Halep said. "But even without wild cards she could come back easily.
"Her return is good for tennis. She is impatient, she wants to play and win."
But a tweet from the WTA, since taken down, indicating that Sharapova's fellow players were all eagerly awaiting her return, drew a sharp response from French player Alize Cornet who tweeted: "@WTA excuse me ....??"
Cornet's tweet was also deleted - a sign perhaps of the divisiveness of the issue.
"The question of wild cards is complicated, I'm glad I'm not in charge of their attribution," said Russian veteran Svetlana Kuznetsova.
"I've been supportive to her because I don't think this thing was really that serious," Kuznetsova said of Sharapova, whose two-year ban was reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
"I understand, because if we talk about cheaters, people who cheat, you would say, 'Why would cheaters get a wild card?'
"But then if there is some mistake, you know, it's a little bit of a different story. But it's really hard to say. I understand all the sides."