Maria Sharapova: wilderness and wildcards

This clay court season, Maria Sharapova will return from the tennis wilderness. A five-time Grand Slam champion, former World No. 1, and with an enormous off-court profile, she is one of the biggest stars of the game, but will not be welcomed back in the manner we have seen Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal return from injury this season, as hers is an exile steeped in controversy and fault.. Her 15 month suspension from the sport, after she was found to be taking the banned substance meldonium in January of 2016, is the biggest doping scandal to ever rock the sport.

Much has been said and written about this case – how the change to meldonium’s status on the banned substance list was communicated, where the culpability lies, and the fairness of Sharapova’s suspension (the length of which was reduced down from 2 years on appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport from the Russian’s legal team). This controversy will follow Sharapova for the rest of her career, and it is a brush she will always be tarred with.

Never a popular character in the locker room – something she will admit to, and accepts that her own standoffish behaviour has cultivated – her return from the cold will be sure to be greeted by further frostiness. The consensus amongst her colleagues is condemnation, as one would reasonably expect for any athlete caught doping, although the comments made by some WTA players have gone beyond the sanitised disapproval that marks this era of media training and professionalism – the Frenchwoman Kiki Mladenovic openly branding Sharapova a “cheater”, and making it clear that she will snubbed in the locker room upon her return.

The latest facet to this controversy revolves specifically around this return – namely the decision of several tournaments, to award her wildcards. With over a year out of the game, Sharapova’s name has been removed from the ranking list entirely, meaning she would not be able to enter tournaments on the WTA Tour level without being granted entry through this means. Stuttgart – a tournament who shares a sponsor with Sharapova – were unsurprisingly the first to make this move, and she will play her first round match there on the 26th April, the first day she is eligible to compete as a tennis professional again. Stuttgart’s example has since been followed by Madrid and Rome, completing the clay court schedule that Sharapova has adhered to for the past several years in the lead up to the French Open.

So, for Sharapova on her return to the tour, it will very much be business as usual – and debate rages over whether this is appropriate for a player who has, in the bluntest terms used by Mladenovic, been caught cheating. It has been widely put forward that it is inherently unfair for a player who has compromised the integrity of the game, and the principles of fair play that underwrite every competitive sport, to be given a wildcard – the numbers of which are limited – in place of a player who has not fallen foul of such a crime. To many, it just does not seem right. A wildcard is generally seen as a reward – and to reward Sharapova in such a way is therefore to condone her behaviour. It’s amoral.

This discussion raises the question however, of who, or what, a wildcard is really for. The concept is one which allows tournaments to have free reign over who they grant entry to, rather than being beholden to ranking and entry requirements. Wildcards are awarded for all manner of reasons – sometimes they are won through knockout competitions amongst lower-ranked players, they can be traded between federations to secure their own players entry to overseas Grand Slams, are often granted to fading stars and former champions for last hurrahs at former hunting grounds, and an inside track for lower-ranked players at their home tournaments.

The primary use of wildcards, though – and one which generally underpins these other uses – is to give the tournaments a boost in attendance and publicity by filling their draw sheets with ‘big names’ who would be unable to compete otherwise, usually due to return from injury that has seen their ranking fall below the requirements. In essence, tournaments use wildcards to sell tickets – and whatever you may think about Maria Sharapova, it is undeniable that few in the sport can eclipse her ability in this domain.

So where again does morality tie into this? A wildcard is a shortcut – and the argument is that a proven doper shouldn’t be allowed to take shortcuts, especially at the expense of other players, who haven’t been caught cheating; these players are more deserving.

But what makes them more deserving? It could be argued that their clean records alone do so, but it where the morality lies on awarding players wildcards based on the sheer virtue of their nationality is less apparent. Wildcards can be a murky business – what made Novak Djokovic’s younger brother Marko, ranked No. 869 in the world, more deserving of a wildcard into the 2012 Dubai Tennis Championships over No. 104 Malek Jaziri? Wildcards are often dogged by similar nepotism, and decisions over them are frequently steeped more in monetary gain and commercialisation than fair play. Decisions over them are not made on entirely moral grounds, so it could be said that to deny Sharapova them based on a moral argument is flawed at its premise.

Another point in Sharapova’s defence would be that she has served her time – the 15 month suspension was her punishment, and to deny her wildcards that in other circumstances she would secure with ease is a further and unnecessary punishment. A further counter argument is that the success Sharapova has had in the sport, and the fans and therefore money that her star power has brought to the game, means she is deserving of wildcards on virtue of these achievements. Popular figures such as Sharapova help to grow the game – and it could be framed that she is being awarded wildcards based off of this merit, and that this is something she has earned that a sub-100 journeywoman player has not. It can be seen as a cold way to look at it, but money drives modern sport. In this guise, giving Sharapova wildcards is not approval of her doping, but rather recognition of the positive contribution she has brought to the game.

It emerged this week that the organisers of Roland Garros are yet to come to a decision over whether to grant Sharapova a wildcard. As a two-time champion, in any other circumstance this would be unquestionable. The majors, for obvious reasons, stand head and shoulders above regular tour-level events, and the prestige and respect they garner both within tennis and to the wider sporting world confer more scrutiny. Opinions vary, but it seems to be more acceptable for a tournament like Stuttgart to compromise on morality than it is for a Grand Slam; the four majors are the pillars of the sport, and they are what represent tennis to the majority of viewers, commentators, and consumers. So whilst Stuttgart, Rome and Madrid have been able to give Sharapova wildcards with little uproar, it is inevitable that the decision Roland Garros makes will lead to far more discussion, criticism, and controversy.

An increasingly sage spokesman for the sport, the World No. 1 Andy Murray probably summarised the situation best: for all of the moral wrangling, tournaments will do what benefits them the most. Ultimately, the wildcard system exists to give tournaments freedom to do this, this is the purpose they have long been used for, and are being used for in the case of Sharapova. How much morality does and should factor into this system, remains unclear, and the dubious nature of wildcards is not limited to this exceptional case.

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