By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Former champion Maria Sharapova's hopes of playing at this year's Wimbledon championships could hinge on a June 20 meeting of tournament organisers unless the Russian hits form in forthcoming events in Madrid and Rome.
Sharapova, who returned last week after a 15-month ban for an anti-doping violation, could still climb high enough in the WTA rankings to earn a spot in the main draw or Wimbledon's qualifying tournament at Roehampton the week before.
Failing that the 2004 champion's participation would be at the mercy of the Wimbledon wildcard committee.
"We have a long-standing tried and tested process (for awarding wildcards) in the week before qualifying and this year is no different," All England Club chairman Philip Brook said at a news conference on Wednesday.
"First we will see if Maria applies for a wildcard and if so we will consider her case alongside everyone else's.
"It will be a decision for the group on the day."
Sharapova reached the semi-finals in Stuttgart last week as a wildcard entrant, playing her first tournament since her ban for taking the prohibited substance Meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open. Her world ranking rose to 262.
The cut-off date to get back around the top 100, which usually ensures direct entry into the main draw, is May 22, the day after the conclusion of the Rome tournament in which Sharapova has been handed another wildcard.
If she falls short of the main draw, Sharapova could still climb high enough up the rankings to make Wimbledon's qualifying event. The cut-off date for that is June 5, in the middle of the French Open.
A strong performance from the former world number in Rome, and in Madrid the week before where she has also been handed a wildcard, would spare the All England Club a tough decision as she could return to Wimbledon on merit.
SOME PLAYERS UPSET
Her return has riled several players, including former world number one Caroline Wozniacki and former Wimbledon runner-up Eugenie Bouchard, both of whom have criticised tournament organisers for handing five-times grand slam champion Sharapova wildcards into their events.
Reigning men's Wimbledon champion Andy Murray has also questioned whether Sharapova should receive special treatment and on Tuesday said he believed tournament chiefs would be "hoping they don't have to make the decision".
While at pains to say any application by Sharapova for wildcard would be treated like any other, Brook hinted that reputation could influence the wildcard sub-committee which includes himself, Wimbledon tournament referee Andrew Jarrett and former British number one Tim Henman.
"We will also consider what might add interest to the tournament. So, if someone had a very strong playing record here at Wimbledon, that would be a factor in our consideration as well," Brook said.
Sharapova's case could also be strengthened if she played at any of the grasscourt events in Nottingham, Birmingham or Eastbourne in the lead-up to Wimbledon.
"We do appreciate players who play in grasscourt tournaments in the build-up to Wimbledon and success in those, for a number of years now, had been rewarded (with wildcards)."
Wimbledon will be without 23-times grand slam singles winner Serena Williams who is pregnant while former world number one Victoria Azarenka is also yet to return after becoming a mother.
The 30-year-old Sharapova failed an anti-doping test for the heart drug Meldonium after failing to realise it had been added to the WADA banned list at the end of 2015.
Sharapova is also waiting to hear if she will be handed a wildcard for the French Open, a tournament she has won twice. That announcement will be made on May 16.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Richard Lough)