The Sharapova question

The Sharapova question

Tennis: With her doping ban about to end, tournaments are giving wild cards to the Russian, triggering debate

The Sharapova question
A year after the news of her positive doping test shook the tennis world, Maria Sharapova has again been dominating conversation at tournaments.

Last March, on the eve of the BNP Paribas Tournament in Indian Wells, Sharapova announced that she had tested positive for the recently banned substance meldonium, an over-the-counter cardiac supplement for which hundreds of Russian athletes also tested positive.

After her two-year suspension by the International Tennis Federation was reduced to 15 months, Sharapova is set to return to tour next month.

She has no ranking but has secured three wild-card entries for clay court events in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome. The next two Grand Slam events, the French Open and Wimbledon, have yet to reach any decision on wild cards for Sharapova, who is a past champion of both tournaments.

Among tennis’ top players and executives, opinions on Sharapova’s exemptions were a mix of cautious and conflicted. Second-ranked Angelique Kerber, who regained the No 1 ranking from Serena Williams last week, was taken aback by the arrangement made for Sharapova to return in Stuttgart despite her ban expiring on a Wednesday two days after the tournament’s main draw begins.

“This is, all over, a strange situation,” Kerber said. “I don’t know what to say about this because it’s a little bit strange for the other players that somebody can just walk on site Wednesday and play Wednesday.”

Kerber, rarely outspoken, is a surprising voice of dissent regarding the Stuttgart event, where she is defending champion. She and Sharapova are sponsored by Porsche, the tournament’s title sponsor. Kerber lamented that a wild card for Sharapova would remove an opportunity for a German player to play in her country’s largest WTA event.

Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA, said tournaments should feel free to welcome back Sharapova, who will be a player in good standing after her ban lapses. The ITF and the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that she had unintentionally committed a doping infraction after failing to keep up-to-date on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list.

“I think it’s really clear: She’s served her suspension, she’s eligible to play, and we welcome her back,” Simon said.

He rebutted the notion that there was any sort of star treatment for Sharapova.

“Maria’s had anything but the red carpet,” he said. “She served a significant suspension for this issue, and again you’ve seen the reasons and you know what they are. All we’ve said is, ‘Yeah, she’s available to play.’ Her wild cards are based on what she’s earned through her career, and the tournaments are making their decisions at their sole discretion.”

When asked about Sharapova in an interview with The Times of London, Andy Murray, the top-ranked men’s player, said, “I think you should really have to work your way back.”

The other day, he further outlined many difficulties of Sharapova’s case, especially given that the logistics of accommodating a star like her could overwhelm the lowest-level events.

“The tournaments are well within their rights to give a wild card; there’s nothing saying that they can’t,” Murray said. “There’s no rule in place, so the tournaments are going to do what they think is best for their event. But should you get a wild card into every event when you come back? I’m not sure about that. That’s something that maybe should be looked at.”

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the top-ranked French player, said he did not believe the French Tennis Federation should give Sharapova a wild card into Roland Garros, which she would need to compete.

“It’s like if you give a sweet to a kid who did bad things,” Tsonga said. “He’s going to do it again.”

Bernard Giudicelli, the newly elected president of the French Tennis Federation, said he met with Sharapova recently, at her request. He said they spoke for a long time and had agreed to keep the content of their meeting confidential.

“I think she’s a great champion, and she has been through some difficult moments, and we are going to think it over,” Giudicelli said in French in a video posted to his Facebook account.

“It’s not an easy decision.”

He said he would return to Paris and discuss Sharapova’s situation further with Guy Forget, the French Open tournament director. “It’s an important decision for the future of our tournament and also for a matter as sensitive as the fight against doping,” Giudicelli said.

Tennis has never had to deal with such a highly ranked and decorated singles player returning from a doping suspension with no ranking. Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam champion, was ranked in the top 10 at the time her violation was announced. Marin Cilic was ranked 11th when he tested positive for a banned substance in 2013, but when he returned that year after his suspension was reduced to four months, he was still in the top 50 and did not need wild cards to enter tournaments.

Svetlana Kuznetsova, a fellow Russian who has been one of Sharapova’s more vocal supporters, said Sharapova’s comeback would be “great for tennis” but acknowledged that the wild-card issue was complex.

“I’ve been supportive to her because I don’t think this thing was really that serious,” Kuznetsova said.

She added: “I understand, because if we talk about cheaters, people who cheat, you would say, ‘Why would cheaters get a wild card?’ But then if there is some mistake, you know, it’s a little bit of a different story. But it’s really hard to say. I understand all the sides.”

Murray acknowledged that there would always be a gray area when it came to suspensions. “If someone’s coming back from a drugs ban, whether they were intentionally cheating, whether it was for recreational drugs, whether it was for performance-enhancing drugs, it’s difficult,” he said. “You’d have to have rules for so many different things. So I think it’s tough.”

Even after more than a year away, Sharapova remains one of tennis’ biggest stars — and a powerful draw for tournaments.

“I think tennis needs a person like she is,” third-ranked Karolina Pliskova said. “So on the one hand, it’s good that she’s going to be back — doesn’t matter how she’s going to play. On the other hand, there’s a lot of discussions now about that she’s going to get wild cards.

“I think it just depends on the tournaments, depends on the directors who are deciding wild cards. I have my own opinion, but I’m just not going to say it.”

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