Sharapova, Azarenka get Cincinnati Open wild card

Cincinnati: Maria Sharapova was on Thursday thrown a comeback lifeline as the Cincinnati Masters dealt the Russian a wildcard entry.
The decision means the 30-year-old, who served a 15-month ban after testing positive for a medication that was suddenly switched from legal to illegal in late 2015, will be playing for three consecutive weeks as she labours through a comeback.
The five-time Grand Slam winner and former number one now stands 173 on the WTA list.
But Sharapova will have a chance to lift that number as she competes next week in Stanford, followed by Toronto and Cincinnati.
Her US Open fate remains unknown after she missed both the French Open and Wimbledon.
Sharapova also needed time to heal a hip muscle tear and tested herself this week in team tennis for a Californian side.
Sharapova owns 35 career titles and spent 21 weeks on number one.
The Russian stands 13-3 in Cincinnati, where she won the 2011 title and finished as a finalist a year earlier.
The tournament also gave wild cards to Victoria Azarenka, the 2013 champion, and American Sloane Stephens for the event which begins on August 14.
Azarenka owns 20 titles, including two Australian Open crowns.
The new mother who gave birth in December won three titles early in 2016 before stepping away after becoming pregnant.
She reached the Wimbledon fourth round this month and stands 9-3 in Cincinnati.
The women’s field is headed by Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep; Andy Murray will be the men’s top seed.
Sharapova says her 15-month doping ban has only fuelled her passion for tennis.
“Though these last two years have been tougher — so much tougher — than I ever could have anticipated…my passion for the game has never wavered,” Sharapova wrote. “If anything, it’s only grown stronger.”
Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, a heart and blood boosting drug, at the 2016 Australian Open.
She said that she had taken it for several years and did not know it had been placed on the banned list at the beginning of 2016.
Sharapova was issued a two-year suspension, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced the ban on appeal.
“I’m aware of what many of my peers have said about me, and how critical of me some of them have been in the press,” she wrote. “If you’re a human being with a normal, beating heart, you know…
I don’t think that sort of thing will ever fully be possible to ignore.”
But Sharapova said she’d been bolstered by the loyalty of her fans, describing how touched she was by the “Welcome back Maria” signs she saw upon her return to the WTA tour at Stuttgart. — Agencies