By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Former American great Chris Evert has no issue with tournaments handing Maria Sharapova wildcard entries as the Russian former world number one makes her way back from a doping ban, she said on Wednesday.
Evert, an 18-times grand slam champion who retired in 1989, was the latest to weigh into a debate in which many leading players have criticized tournament organizers for not making Sharapova earn her way back.
Wildcards are currently the only way Sharapova, who is unranked and serving a 15-month ban, can play in the big events and she has accepted invitations to tournaments in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome in the next two months.
"You can't blame the tournaments really for wanting to be successful and wanting to enhance their tournament by having a big draw like Maria Sharapova," Evert said on a conference call from Indian Wells, where she is a television commentator for ESPN at the BNP Paribas Open.
"She is doing everything within the rules and she (will have) fulfilled her obligation of 15 months so I am not critical of that decision that the tournament made whatsoever."
Sharapova was among the top 10 players in the world when she tested positive for the banned substance meldonium at last year's Australian Open.
The 29-year-old Russian's two-year ban by the International Tennis Federation was later reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Sharapova said this year that she would return to competition at the Stuttgart Grand Prix, the main draw for which starts on April 24, the penultimate day of the five-times grand slam champion's ban.
Men's world number one Andy Murray said he wished players would not get any favors on returning from bans regardless of their popularity while Dane Caroline Wozniacki called the decision to allow Sharapova to play "disrespectful".
At the moment, Sharapova would need a wildcard from the French Tennis Federation to play in the French Open. Her performances in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome could avoid forcing the All England Club into making the same decision regarding this year's Wimbledon.
"It's completely within the rules and fair for the tournament to reward whoever they want," former top-10 player Brad Gilbert said.
"It will be interesting to see what the slams do."
(Editing by Ed Osmond)