PARIS — May 16, 2017: Maria Sharapova’s hopes of a dream return from doping outcast to a third French Open crown were shattered today when the Russian was surprisingly refused a wildcard by organisers.
The 30-year-old, who conquered all on the Parisian clay in 2012 and 2014 but whose career was rocked by a 15-month doping ban last year, was widely expected to be fast-tracked into the tournament.
After only returning to the circuit last month, Sharapova’s ranking, now at 211, was not high enough to warrant an automatic place into the Roland Garros main draw which starts on May 28, or the qualifying event held the week before.
However, in an unexpected move, especially as the French Open is already without pregnant Serena Williams and resting Roger Federer, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) took a moral stand that might please some of her rivals but could hit the tournament’s TV ratings.
“You can get a wild card when you return from injury but you cannot get a wild card when returning from a doping suspension,” FFT president Bernard Giudicelli said during a news conference broadcast live on Facebook.
“I appreciate the media impact of Maria, I appreciate the broadcasters’ expectations but in conscience, it was not possible to go beyond the anti-doping code and beyond the application of the rules…
“I’m very sorry for Maria, very sorry for her fans,” added Giudicelli. They might be disappointed, she might be very disappointed, but it’s my responsibility, my mission, to protect the high standards of the game.”
Giudicelli dropped the bombshell shortly before Sharapova, who tested positive for heart disease drug meldonium at last year’s Australian Open, was due to face Croatian veteran Mirjana Luci-Baroni at the Italian Open in Rome.
The bold decision of the French federation now throws the ball in the court of Wimbledon’s organisers who could face a similarly difficult decision when they announce their wildcards on June 20. Sharapova, who burst into the spotlight in 2004 when beating Serena Williams to win Wimbledon, is likely to need a wildcard invitation for the main draw at the All England Club.
An easy solution would be for her to play in the Wimbledon qualifying event which she will be able to enter by right after Monday’s first-round win in Rome guaranteed her a high enough ranking. If she reaches the Rome semis she would be inside the cut-off point for the main draw.
Sharapova stunned the sporting world last year when she stood up in a Los Angeles hotel to say that she had failed a doping test for meldonium — a drug that she said she had legally taken throughout her career to treat medical conditions. Her explanation was that she had not realised it had been added to WADA’s banned list a few weeks earlier.
The five-times grand slam champion, one of the sport’s biggest names and whose $36 million in prize money is dwarfed by her off-court earnings, was initially banned for two years.
However, after an appeal, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) found she was not an intentional doper and reduced the suspension to 15 months.
“While it’s true that the CAS has reduced her sanction, it is still a violation of the tennis anti-doping programme,” Giudicelli said. “It is not for me to question that (CAS) decision.”
Sharapova’s return has been rocky and several rivals have criticised tournament directors at WTA events in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome for offering her a wildcard, arguing that she should be awarded no special treatment.
After reaching the semi-finals in Stuttgart she fell early in Madrid to Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard, who days earlier described her as a “cheater”.
Others have been more charitable though and former great Martina Navratilova recently said the sniping should stop.
“I think it’s time for the players to lay off Maria. She made a huge mistake, paid dearly for it, done the time and now let’s play ball,” she Tweeted this month. — Reuters