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I once watched Maria Sharapova play tennis live. It was the fourth round of the French Open in 2014 against Sam Stosur. Sharapova lost the first set, but it was clear that this would only delay the inevitable. What followed was more like retribution than just a comeback: Sharapova won the last nine games in a row. She went on to win the tournament for the second time. What was obvious from the stands was that she possessed an unrivalled competitive ferocity. She was an irresistible force. Pure box office.
Two years later, in June 2016, there was a twist in the plot of the Sharapova story. She received a two-year ban from tennis (later reduced to 15 months) after testing positive for the prohibited substance meldonium. No tennis means no points, and at the time of writing, she is ranked 147th in the world.
Nevertheless, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) have decided to grant Sharapova a “wild card” to this year’s US Open. Wild cards are both scarce and prized at every level of professional tennis. They allow a player, who would otherwise have to battle through several rounds of qualifying, to skip straight into the main draw.
A wild card for a grand slam event is especially coveted, partly for the prestige of the tournament but also on account of the large guaranteed prize money and ranking points (and opportunity to earn more of both).
This is the tenth wild card that Sharapova has received since her return from the ban. Significantly, it is her first wild card for a Grand Slam event, with the French Open declining to offer her one and Wimbledon not having to make the decision on account of her being ruled out with injury.
The USTA have attempted to justify its decision to grant Sharapova a wild card on three grounds: Firstly, she has completed her suspension from competition. Secondly, there is a tradition of offering wild cards to previous US Open champions (Sharapova having won in 2006 ). Thirdly, Sharapova has volunteered to speak to young American players about the importance of tennis’s anti-doping programme.
But they are wrong.
To begin with, it is incorrect to equate the end of Sharapova’s suspension with the end of her punishment. The suspension is only part of the punishment. Another part is the damaging effect that suspension has on her ability to gain entry to tournaments following her return, with a ranking significantly lower than before she was suspended. If the intention were not to impose this type of hardship, returning dopers would be given a “protected ranking” (called a WTA Special Ranking on the women’s tour), as happens with players returning from long-term injury, illness, or pregnancy. But they are not.
By granting her wild cards, the tennis hierarchy have effectively excused Sharapova from this aspect of her punishment. In doing so, they express an implied tolerance to doping. Eugenie Bouchard, the Canadian number one, remarked that granting Sharapova wild cards sends the wrong message to young kids: “Cheat and we will welcome you back with open arms.”
It might be unkind to label Sharapova a “cheat”. The Court of Arbitration for Sport Panel emphasised in its decision that “under no circumstances can … [Sharapova] be considered to be an ‘intentional doper’”.
She was held to be at fault for failing to make sure that substances she had been using for some years remained off the banned list. Bouchard is right, though, that granting her wild cards dilutes the condemnation implied by her punishment.
The USTA have also argued that they are following precedent in granting Sharapova a wildcard. Other past champions such as Juan Martin Del Potro have been granted wild cards when their ranking did not secure direct entry to the main draw. Del Potro was granted a wild card in 2016 when his ranking suffered because of a long-term wrist injury. Sharapova has been granted a wild card because her ranking suffered while suspended for doping. These are not like cases.
Sharapova has promised to provide “anti-doping education”. But given her lack of contrition in the 18 months since she was banned, anything she has to say in this context would lack credibility. Nor is it clear how her provision of this service would justify her receipt of a wild card.
Is her willingness to speak thought to indicate contrition, and deemed to count in favour of her wild card? If so, then what happens to the USTA’s position that her doping record was irrelevant because she had served her suspension? Her doping record (and attitude towards it) cannot both be relevant and not relevant.
Even so, Sharapova should have an opportunity for redemption, and she should be allowed a fresh start. But a fresh start means starting again, not taking up from where she left off before her suspension. It should not involve her being parachuted back to the upper echelons of tennis above thousands of other players who are scrapping it out in lesser tournaments, often in inhospitable conditions and for meagre prize money.
The decision to allow Sharapova to jump the queue is an insult to them, it is an indictment of the USTA, and it is a rotten compromise of sports integrity – for box office sparkle.