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 qualifying tournament at Roehampton.
Failing that the 2004 champion would need a wildcard, either into the main draw or the qualifying event which takes place a week before the championship begins.
"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 enter Wimbledon's main draw is May 22, the day after the conclusion of the Rome tournament in which Sharapova has been handed another wildcard.
The cut-off for entry to the qualifying event is June 5.
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 likely elevate Sharapova high enough in the WTA rankings to enter Wimbledon on merit.
That would potentially spare the All England Club a tough decision as they are already without defending champion Serena Williams who is pregnant.
Several players, including former world number one Caroline Wozniacki and former Wimbledon runner-up Eugenie Bouchard, have been highly critical of tournament organisers handing five-times grand slam champion Sharapova wildcards.
But Sharapova remains one of the biggest names in the sport and has the pedigree to challenge for the title.
While at pains to say any application by Sharapova for wildcard would be treated like any other, Brook hinted that reputation could influence the committee which includes himself, Wimbledon tournament referee Andrew Jarrett and former British number one Tim Henman.
"We look at who has done well in the lead-up tournaments," he said.
"We will also consider what might add interest to the tournament. If someone has a strong record at Wimbledon that would be taken into consideration."
Brook also suggested Sharapova's case could be strengthened if she played at events in Nottingham, Birmingham or Eastbourne.
"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)."
The 30-year-old Sharapova, who failed an anti-doping test for the heart drug Meldonium after failing to realise it had been added to the banned list at the end of 2015, is also sweating on being handed a wildcard for the French Open.
A decision on that is expected on May 16.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Richard Lough)