The folks who run the sport of tennis do not have a hard-and-fast rule that would apply to Maria Sharapova and others in her shoes, something along the lines of: When returning from a drug suspension with a ranking too low to earn access to tournaments, a player is (or is not) entitled to wild-card entries.
The way things are now, it is up to each individual tournament to elect whether to invite players under such circumstances. So Sharapova will not compete at the French Open after that country’s tennis federation announced Tuesday it opted not to allow the two-time champion into the field because of her recently concluded 15-month doping ban.
Many figured Sharapova would be permitted to play in Paris — in the qualifying rounds, at the very least, if not in the main draw, which starts May 28.
She is, after all, the owner of a total of five major titles, a former No. 1-ranked player and one of the world’s most recognizable athletes. And she did, after all, return to the WTA tour last month; she tested positive for the newly banned drug meldonium at the Australian Open in January 2016.
“This suspension is over and she can take her path toward new success,” French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli said. “But while there can be a wild card for return from injury, there can’t be a wild card for return from doping.”
That is a matter of opinion: As WTA CEO Steve Simon pointed out Tuesday, tournaments are allowed to award a wild-card invitation to any eligible player, and Sharapova is now eligible to compete.
“What I do not agree with is the basis put forward by the FFT for their decision with respect to Maria Sharapova. She has complied with the sanction imposed,” Simon said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. “There are no grounds for any member of the (tennis anti-doping program) to penalize any player beyond the sanctions set forth in the final decision resolving these matters.”
The WTA is not contemplating any change to rules governing wild cards for players returning from a suspension.
As it stands, Sharapova’s ranking is not high enough to gain direct access into top-tier events. The 30-year-old Russian was granted wild cards by three clay-court tournaments: in Stuttgart, Germany, in April, followed by Madrid last week, and then Rome, where she quit because of a left thigh injury during a match Tuesday.
Quite a day, huh?
Sharapova skipped a news conference afterward, issuing a statement about the injury but saying nothing about the French Open decision. The agency that represents her also declined comment.
Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, Sharapova’s Italian Open opponent, had plenty to say.
“The fact that there isn’t a rule on people who failed doping tests, and whether or not they can get a wild card, whether or not they should, it’s a very strange thing,” Lucic-Baroni said, “because we are professional, and that should be in place.”
She also made clear that she agreed with Giudicelli, calling the decision to deny the wild card “brave” because of Sharapova’s popularity.
“If you want to do the right thing, you have to do the right thing,” Lucic-Baroni said. “If you want to invest more money in doping tests, then you can’t award a person who failed a doping test, no matter how you guys want to wrap it up and make it sound pretty.”
Current men’s No. 1 Andy Murray, who lost in Rome on Tuesday, was not in much of a mood to discuss the topic yet again.
He’s made clear that he is not a fan of wild cards for players returning from doping suspensions and, like Lucic-Baroni, would like to see some sort of standardized approach to the issue.
“The French have decided what they want to do,” Murray said, “and that’s fine with me.”
After initially getting a two-year suspension, Sharapova appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which reduced the ban, ruling she bore “less than significant fault” in the case and could not “be considered to be an intentional doper.”
Her ranking rose enough during her return that she can participate in qualifying for the next major tournament, Wimbledon. As for the U.S. Open, U.S. Tennis Association spokesman Chris Widmaier said: “For us, it would be very premature to comment on our wild-card process.”
The French federation’s Giudicelli said he “felt some pressure” to let Sharapova play at Roland Garros. Ultimately, though, he said he determined, “It’s my responsibility, it’s my mission, to protect the game and protect the high standards of the game.”
One day, perhaps it will be the International Tennis Federation, ATP and WTA that decide what, exactly, the standards are. -- AP