ROME • Maria Sharapova guaranteed herself a spot in the Wimbledon qualifying tournament with a first-round victory over American Christina McHale at the Italian Open yesterday.
The Russian tennis player, given a wild card to compete in Rome after returning from a 15-month doping ban, dropped serve three times in a scrappy opening set, but won 6-4, 6-2.
She faces a battle to raise her ranking sufficiently to qualify for July's grasscourt Grand Slam in London, sparing organisers the dilemma of whether to award her a wild card into the main draw of the tournament she won in 2004.
Should the 30-year-old three-time Italian Open champion, ranked 211th in the world, reach the semi-finals, she would earn an automatic slot in the Wimbledon main draw ahead of the May 22 rankings cut-off date.
Her second-round opponent will be Croatian veteran Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, whom she beat in the Madrid tournament last week before losing a grudge match against Eugenie Bouchard.
Canadian Bouchard had called for Sharapova to be banned for life after the five-time Grand Slam champion tested positive for meldonium at last year's Australian Open, referring to the Russian as a "cheater".
Several other players have criticised the decision by tournament organisers to welcome Sharapova back so readily.
If the Russian fails to reach the semi-finals in Rome, the Wimbledon Championships wild card committee, which meets on June 20, would have to decide whether to fast-track her into the main draw or let her take her chances in qualifying.
The qualifying tournament is held the week before, in the quaint surroundings of Roehampton, in south-west London - potentially creating a security headache if Sharapova plays. At a recent news conference, All England Club officials said this year's qualifying tournament, previously free for the public, would be ticketed and restricted to 1,000 fans.
There will also be video coverage and an improved players' lounge, although All England Club chief executive Richard Lewis said the upgrades had nothing to do with Sharapova's possible participation in the lead-up to Wimbledon.
"I know it does seem very convenient timing, but it is actually unrelated, genuinely unrelated, and we know that qualifying needs to continue to be improved, just like we improve facilities here at the Championships," he said.
Sharapova will learn today whether she has been given a wild card into either qualifying or the main draw at the French Open, which gets under way on May 28.
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