Adam Addicott on the Grand Slam winner's looming return from her ban
When the Court of Arbitration for Sport slashed Maria Sharapova’s doping suspension, apprehension erupted at the prestigious French Open.
The former World No.1 hasn’t played a competitive match since her quarter-final loss to Serena Williams at the 2016 Australian Open. Weeks after her defeat, Sharapova confirmed that she had tested positive for the banned substance Meldonium. Her argument that she wasn’t aware of the drug becoming a prohibited substance on January 1st (2016) was met with little sympathy by the International Tennis Federation. She was originally slammed with a two-year ban before a successful appeal.
"The panel found that Ms. Sharapova committed an anti-doping rule violation and that while it was with 'no significant fault', she bore some degree of fault, for which a sanction of 15 months is appropriate," the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled last October.
Set to grace her presence on the court at next month’s Stuttgart Open, Sharapova’s return isn’t one without controversy. Handed a wild card into the German tournament, which she has already won three times, officials have allowed the Russian to play her first match midway through the week. Under the time-frame, Sharapova is prohibited from entering the premises of a WTA event until Wednesday, April 26th.
Stuttgart’s accommodating approach isn’t just a coincidence. Both Sharapova and the event are sponsored by Porsche. Shortly after Stuttgart, Premier events in Madrid and Rome also followed suit with wild card gifts.
"Maria is one of the best players of the last 15 years and also a past winner of our tournament. In Madrid she always plays well and I’m sure she will come back to the court's highly motivated and hoping to do well in her first tournaments," said tournament director Manolo Santana.
Sharapova’s former No.1 and Grand Slam champion status has earned her the privilege of receiving unlimited wild cards into tournaments. Nevertheless, some are questioning the ethics of rewarding such opportunities to a player convicted of an anti-doping violation. Unfortunately for Sharapova, one of those include the French Open.
"Integrity is one of our strong points. We cannot decide, on the one hand, to increase the amount of funds we dedicate to the anti-doping battle and, on the other, invite her," newly elected French tennis president Bernard Giudicelli told AFP News.
It is understood that both Sharapova’s team and French Open officials will meet to discuss the situation, an approach that has also sparked criticism. It is unlikely that a lower ranked player would be given that same opportunity if they were convicted of the same offence.
Francesca Schiavone in action against Simona Halep on day Four of the Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon. Steve Paston/PA Archive/PA Images
There is also the debate over fairness. Outrage will likely erupt if Sharapova gets a wild card and not Francesca Schiavone, both of whom are former winners at Roland Garros. 36-year-old Schiavone is set to end her career this season and has dropped down to 157th in the world.
"As you know, there is another person who accepted one for Madrid and Rome and likely for Roland Garros as well, so it becomes all very difficult and I am not as powerful as her managerial team," Schiavone said about her wild card situation.
Protected by her army of loyal fans (Sharapova has a Facebook following of 15.4 million), there is a visible divide on the tour. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga is one of the most recent payers to weigh in the debate, arguing that awarding Sharapova a French Open pass equates to "giving to candy to a child who has misbehaved".
In the mix of such division over the topic, tennis’ governing bodies are becoming aware that change might be needed to prevent future controversies. World No.1 Andy Murray is renowned for his tough stance over anti-doping. Acknowledging the pulling power of players such as Sharapova, he believes those returning from suspensions should be made to work their way back up the rankings.
"I think you should really have to work your way back. However, the majority of tournaments are going to do what they think is best for their event," Murray told The Times.
The ongoing argument over Sharapova’s return to the tour show no signs of easing. Soon it will be Wimbledon’s turn to decide her fate. It has become evident that taking a tough stance is not so easy when a star name is involved.
Sharapova is use making headlines and this is a trend that is set to continue for the foreseeable future.