ROME Maria Sharapova guaranteed herself a spot in the Wimbledon qualifying tournament with a first-round victory against American Christina McHale at the Italian Open on Monday.
The Russian former world number one, given a wildcard 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 to reach round two.
Sharapova faces a battle to raise her ranking enough to qualify for the grasscourt grand slam by right and spare organisers the dilemma of whether to award her a wildcard into the main draw of the tournament she won in 2004.
Should the 30-year-old three-times Rome champion, ranked 211 in the world, reach the semi-finals, she would almost certainly earn an automatic Wimbledon main draw slot ahead of the May 22 rankings cut-off date.
Her second-round opponent will be Croatian veteran Mirjana Luci-Baroni who she beat in the Madrid tournament last week before losing a grudge match against Eugenie Bouchard.
Canadian Bouchard had called for five-times grand slam champion Sharapova to be banned for life after testing positive for heart drug meldonium at last year's Australian Open, referring to the Russian as a "cheater".
Several other players have criticised the decision of tournament organisers to welcome Sharapova back so readily.
If Sharapova fails to reach the semi-finals in Rome, the Wimbledon Championships wildcard 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 -- 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.
"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 find out on Tuesday whether she has been handed a wildcard to this month's French Open.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Hugh Lawson)