By Jane Voigt
You wouldn’t say Maria Sharapova is a polarizing figure. That’s a bit extreme. Yet you could say she is controversial. At this U.S. Open. In the world outside tennis.
Her appearance at this Open is thanks to a wild card granted by the U.S.T.A., the owners of the tournament. It concluded Sharapova had served her 15 months for doping and, therefore, deserved a spot in the main draw.
But the fact that she has been scheduled only on Arthur Ashe Stadium for all her matches – her third coming up this evening – has raised eyebrows.
“I think putting out a schedule where the number five in the world is put on court 5, fifth match on after 11. I think that’s unacceptable,” Caroline Wozniacki, the fifth seed, told the press after her loss to Ekaterina Makarova Wednesday. “I understand completely the business side of things, when I look at center court. But someone who comes back from a drug sentence, using performance enhancing drugs, and all of a sudden gets to play every single match on center court … I think that’s a questionable thing to do. It doesn’t set a good example. I think that someone who has fought their way back from injury deserves to play on bigger court than court number five.”
Wozniacki spoke about her comeback from injury, in that frank comment. Others share the same perspective.
American CoCo Vandeweghe (No. 20) argued that Sharapova’s wild card should have gone to an American, according to The New York Times. Her opinion is mild compared to what Eugenie Bouchard said months ago. That Sharapova was a ‘cheat’ and that ‘she should be barred from the sport.’
Yet the welcome fans gave Sharapova Monday night was in opposition to the shade thrown from several players. Even Andy Murray and Roger Federer thought she should work her way back up the rankings and not get any wild cards.
But what’s the poor U.S.T.A. to do about the possible loss of revenue for its annual mega-tournament … the top earning product in its lineup of service-heavy offerings? With no Murray, Novak Djokovic, Stan Wawrinka or Kei Nishikori who’s going to bring in the crowds? And especially with Serena Williams out awaiting her first child, which she gave birth today … a baby girl.
But the U.S.T.A. calculated correctly when it granted the wild card to Maria. And each time she’s scheduled on Arthur Ashe Stadium, which holds 23,700 people, the revenue bucket gets heavier. Make no mistake, that’s the priority for the biggest tennis operation in America.
However no matter the pretty smiles Maria flashes fans and no matter the spectacular outfits Nike gives her to wear, the aura of doping hangs around. It doesn’t matter, really, that it’s hanging around Sharapova. Any player is shunned for abusing performance enhancing drugs. The question is, when is it time to stop talking about it, writing about it, and keeping a cloud over Maria instead of a clear blue sky?
Some of the muck sticks around because an explicit story about her doping suspension isn’t available. It can’t be. Findings were based on subjective interpretations. The World Anti-doping Association had originally ordered a two-year ban for Sharapova. She then appealed to the International Tennis Federation. It concluded she took Meldonium unintentionally. Her sentence was then reduced to 15 months.
When asked by the New York Times Wednesday how many times she ‘had been drug-tested this year,’ Sharapova said, “At the end of the year, you’ll be able to find out.”
Had she simply answered the question and been forthright instead of playing the public relations card, some respect would’ve come her way. But her evasion makes things worse for her.
Garbine Muguruza (No. 3), the Wimbledon champion, has not played on Ashe. Jelena Ostapenko, the French Open champion, has not been scheduled on Ashe. Petra Kvitova, 2-time Wimbledon champion, and player whose hand was practically destroyed by an intruder wielding a knife last November, hasn’t been scheduled on Ashe.
No one is naive to the necessity of making money. However, pushing for a change in attitude toward a five-time Grand Slam champion who had been taking a performance-enhancing drug for 10 years, prior to it being banned, and who, therefore, brought shame to the sport is impossible. And it’s not the U.S.T.A.’s job to change attitudes unless, of course, it can prosper from its efforts, which seems to be best reached by dictating who gets which court.