Earlier this week, the Madrid Open became the second event to grant the soon to be returning Maria Sharapova a wild card. The 29-year-old Russian is serving out the final weeks of a 15-month suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. The Italian Open, French Open and Wimbledon are all rumored to be extending invites for her to play as well.
Giving Sharapova easy access to the sport’s biggest events again seems highly controversial considering the reason for her lengthy suspension. However, there are a few reasons that it shouldn’t be.
She Has Paid Enough of a Price:
By the end of her suspension, Sharapova will miss four Grand Slams and an Olympic games. That is a very steep price to pay under any circumstances. It becomes even steeper when one considers the specific circumstances of this case.
Sharapova tested positive for a drug called meldonium. It was added to the banned list by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at the start of 2016. As flimsy as her “I did not know it had been banned” excuse sounded, there was some validity to it when over 100 athletes tested positive for the same drug after its banishment.
Think about that for a second. The only commonality among all those tests was that the vast majority of the athletes were Eastern European. Either over 100 athletes with very little in common decided to deliberately cheat at the same time, or WADA did not properly communicate that the substance was added to the banned list. At some point, logic has to kick in.
Not only was Sharapova the biggest star caught using the drug, she was also the only one who held a press conference and freely admitted to taking it over a 10-year period. Moreover, she acknowledged failing a test at the 2016 Australian Open.
Her story never changed. Honesty should count for something. Her suspension was originally two years and she won an appeal that reduced it to 15 months.
Sorry folks… She Gets The Benefit of Star Power:
With the legal side covered, let’s move on to the tennis side of the story. In a sport that struggles to generate stars, Sharapova may be the brightest of them all. Prior to this scandal, she was the world’s highest-paid female athlete for over a decade running. From fashion, to candy, to endorsements, she is one of the most recognizable faces in all of sports.
Even before this lone black mark on her career, there were plenty of people out there who loved her, and plenty who hated her. If anything, the drug scandal will only increase how polarizing she is. Tickets for her first match at her comeback event in Stuttgart, Germany on April 26 have been sold out for weeks.
Tennis tournaments are a business. The people who run them want the stands packed and lots of media coverage. Having someone like Sharapova at an event certainly helps accomplish that goal. The fact that her star is now somewhat tainted only adds to the intrigue surrounding the Russian star.
A certain number of wild cards are given to each tournament to use at the tournament director’s discretion. They almost always go to local young players or more established stars, who for whatever reason do not have a ranking that would get them in the event.
For lack of a better term, wild cards are designed to go to any player who can add a little “sizzle” to the event. Based on that criteria, what tournament director would be foolish enough to deny Sharapova access? The answer is none.
Would a lesser player, who has been suspended for 15 months and no longer has a ranking, have to start all over again at the lowest levels of the sport? Sure, but Maria Sharapova is an Olympic silver medalist, 35-time WTA Tour title winner, including five Grand Slams, and a former world number one. Unless you are in jail, that résumé will open some doors for you.
Context of the Comeback:
Sharapova’s icy demeanor while in competition and her loud on court grunting have always rubbed some people the wrong way. Once it is all over, the last 15 months will only add to that chorus of detractors.
Fortunately for her, Sharapova has always been a fierce competitor and very comfortable in her own skin. This is a woman who once said “It’s pretty hard being a tennis player and Mother Theresa at the same time and that’s just the way it is.”
Sharapova never got in this business to make friends. She did so to win tennis matches. The other players are the only ones who can stop her comeback. To do it, they will have to do something only Serena Williams has done consistently over the years: beat her.
“From Our Haus to Yours”