By Jane Voigt
March 10, 2017 — Maria Sharapova draws attention from the tennis world and beyond. She is a 5-time Grand Slam champion, has been the highest paid woman athlete in the world (according to Forbes) and, to her detriment, was found guilty of doping almost 15 months ago by the International Tennis Federation. Her announcement of the charges came on the eve of the 2016 BNP Paribas Open. The news shocked and unsettled millions of fans and further exposed the larger Russian doping question.
Yet Sharapova is one tough competitor, an excellent asset, with possibly her highest hurdles awaiting her this spring as she prepares to return to competition.
Because she has no ranking she applied and was granted wildcards into Stuttgart (champion 2012, 2013, 2014), Madrid (2014) and Rome (2011, 2012, 2015), all major clay-court tournaments that lead up to The French Open. But she has not received a wildcard to The French Open, where she is a two-time champion: 2012 and 2014. And, she has not been granted on for Wimbledon, either, the site of her first Grand Slam in 2004.
What should we do about Maria at that stage?
According to The New York Times, Sharapova met with the new head of the French Tennis Federation, Bernard Giudicelli, at her request last week. “He said they spoke for a long time and had agreed to keep the content of their meeting confidential,” the Times reported.
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.”
Guy Forget, French Open Tournament Director, will be consulted before any final decision is made, which, as Giudicelli said, will not be easy.
Maria is a super-star and a ticket-seller’s delight whether she’s perceived as a flagrant abuser of banned substances, a fierce and noisy tennis player or a beloved hero to millions. However she returns to the courts tarnished, or so some will argue. She admitted in her press conference last year in Los Angeles that she had not read the revised list of banned substances distributed by the World Anti-doping Agency in September, 2015, and, thus, when tested during the 2016 Australian Open, her results came back positive for meldonium, an over-the-counter cardiac supplement, “which hundreds of Russian athletes also tested positive.”
According to the same Times article, German Angelique Kerber is troubled by Sharapova’s wildcard entry to Stuttgart two days in advance of the final date of her suspension. Kerber argued that Maria’s entry will eliminate a German player who has no record of doping and is eager to step up especially in her country of origin. “This is, all over, a strange situation,” Kerber said.
Andy Murray thinks she should “work her way back.” Jo-Wilfred Tsonga thinks Sharapova would be like a child getting candy for bad behavior. Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova supports her friend’s return, saying it’s good for the game. And the chief executive of the WTA, Steve Simon, said, “Tournaments should feel free to welcome back Sharapova, who will be a player in good standing after the ban lapses.”
Players’ opinions and ITF facts, which reduced Sharapova’s ban from 2 years to 15 months after concluding she did not intentionally take the drug, will influence decisions by The French Federation and The Wimbledon Committee. It will be a balance of expected fallout of a political nature and capital gains.
Her first appearance on those Grand Slam show courts, after she has been granted a wildcard, will affect opinion and spur debate on social media. There’s no way to accurately gauge that outcome, although risk assessment will narrow the damage to a degree. Another avenue would be for her to request a wildcard into qualification tournaments in Paris and Wimbledon. That’s the road less traveled Murray hinted at, but one not taken by a player ranked in the top ten at the time of her ban.
Neither the WTA or the ATP has a policy that would guide them, either. Perhaps one should be written. But how should it be phrased? Can all angles be covered under one statement? Since the WTA and ATP are separate entities, could this instance motivate both to come together and structure something that would include both men and women. Both genders have used supplemental enhancement drugs.
Sharapova’s comeback can be compared to the release of a previously jailed criminal, a tough term to assign to Maria. They’ve served their sentence, but society views them as their verdict not as someone who has served their time. When does the perception change and the resentment morph into empathy?
Sharapova is not the most well-liked player on tour. Her screech as she strikes the ball puts off viewers to the point they don’t want to watch her matches or they mute their viewing devices. She stands judged for her tennis on that howl. She is cold on court, as well. A one-track mind that chills audiences, but wins the Russian titles. She wins praises for her attire, which also influences opinion. Yet she frequently talks in the third person when answering questions for the press, as if the tense builds a boundary of safety.
Most of the fray about her return will quickly wear off, as does most news in a world consumed by what’s next. However the decisions made by the next two Grand Slams will affect the outcome of future doping allegations made against pro tennis players, whether a policy is struck by either or both player organizations.