An improbable progression through a grand slam typically represents tennis at its best.

A wildcard, perhaps fortunate to receive entry into such an illustrious event, stringing together a few unlikely wins and knocking over a succession of seeds, the disbelief increasing with every set and culminating in a seemingly impossible appearance towards the end of the second week.

Every tournament dreams of such a fairytale. But ahead of her third-round US Open match this afternoon, Maria Sharapova's early success feels more like a sporting nightmare.

In a vacuum, the Russian wildcard returning from an 18-month grand slam absence to upset the world No 2 appears a strong start to ticking the above boxes.


But rather than warm the heart, Sharapova's victory was more likely to send a chill down the spine, a feeling only exacerbated by the incredible product placement in her subsequent on-court interview: "Behind this black dress with Swarovski crystals, this girl has a lot of grit and she is not going anywhere."

Sharapova is right about one thing - even at 30, she seems set to feature at the top level of tennis for some time. Which means we all must once more consider how to treat athletes who have essentially done their time before embarking on a second act in a now-marred career.

At the recent athletics world championships in London, that meant Justin Gatlin being showered with boos as he spoiled Usain Bolt's farewell party to win the 100m, the American representing a prominent face in the performance-enhancing drug scourge that has enveloped athletics.

Gatlin's sins are more serious than Sharapova's - the sprinter twice tested positive for PEDs and served two suspensions before winning his third world championship gold - but the dilemma is the same.

For a fair few fans, every triumph for Sharapova will feel like another blow in the battle to rid sport of cheats. Others may believe her rather dubious explanation for using the heart medication meldonium and feel, like Sharapova, that she is in fact the aggrieved party.

But one thing is clear: the manner in which the US Open organisers welcomed her back to centre court - literally and figuratively - shows that in some quarters, making money is much a higher priority than any perception of fairness.

The decision to hand Sharapova a place in the main draw was contentious enough. With injuries impeding her on-court efforts since the end of her 15-month suspension, a wildcard was the only way Sharapova would play this week at Flushing Meadows.

And while organisers insisted the move was in keeping with past policy of inviting previous winners into the first round, there's no such custom stating those players then be allowed a prime place in the night session at Arthur Ashe Stadium for their opening two matches.

It was difficult to avoid rolling the eyes at such a brazen grab for attention and Caroline Wozniacki, for one, expressed her dismay after being shunted out to court five.

"I understand completely the business side of things," the world No5 said, "but someone who comes back from a drugs sentence, performance-enhancing drugs, and all of a sudden gets to play every single match on centre court, I think that's a questionable thing to do."

Questionable is probably a kind description. If an athlete like Gatlin earns a place on the start line through performance alone, there is little to do but ensure the urine sample is collected post-race.

But rolling out the red carpet for Sharapova is about as nauseating as a shameless plug for some gaudy jewellery.