Maria Sharapova will return from her doping ban in Stuttgart in six weeks time, but her participation at the French Open and Wimbledon remains in significant doubt.
The 29-year-old has been offered wildcards into the WTA tournaments in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome. She will need another if she is to play at Roland Garros, and unless she makes a flying start when her career resumes, her presence at Wimbledon will be in the hands of the All England Club.
The reputation of the Grand Slams is linked intrinsically to the integrity of the sport. Will they take the view that once a ban is served, a decorated former champion like Sharapova should be entitled to unlimited invitations to the world’s best events? Or will they share the view of Andy Murray and Caroline Wozniacki that, after a doping ban, players should not be offered shortcuts into tournaments?
A former Grand Slam champion is currently free to accept as many wildcards as they wish, but that is a rule which is likely to be reviewed, according to the WTA’s chief executive. Steve Simon has also said – in an interview for BBC Sport in Los Angeles – that he is not personally in favour of changing the rule, as a doping ban “should not wipe out a career’s worth of work”.
Should a Grand Slam champion retain all privileges after a doping ban?
Murray believes that ideally a player should be made to work their way back after a ban by accumulating ranking points in smaller tournaments. Wozniacki was even more direct with her language when she addressed the subject here in Indian Wells.
“When someone has been banned for drugs and something that is performance enhancing, I think that you deserve a second chance like everybody else. People make mistakes, but I think you should fight your way back from the bottom,” the former world number one Wozniacki said.
Other players, like Venus Williams and Simona Halep, believe Sharapova is deserving of wildcards, but it may be that a Grand Slam champion who serves a doping ban loses the right to unlimited wildcards in the future.
“Every rule gets looked at and reviewed, and I’m sure this may be one of them,” WTA chief executive Simon told me.
“If the members wish us to look at the rule, we will – that’s how our system works.
“My personal opinion is that it shouldn’t be adjusted unless we decide to not provide it at all and change the entire wildcard rule. I think the suspension is in place to deal with an action that occurred – I don’t think it should wipe out a career’s worth of work, and in essence that’s what people are saying.
“Maria has served a 15 month suspension, has had no income, has lost all of her ranking as well as her Australian Open winnings from 2016 – so she’s served a significant penalty for her actions.”
Stuttgart wildcard has ruffled feathers
Sharapova will make her return in Stuttgart on Wednesday 26 April, which is the very day her ban expires and two days after the tournament begins. This has upset Angelique Kerber, the German who has won the title for the past two years and will return to the top of the world rankings on Monday.
Like Sharapova, she is sponsored by Porsche, the firm also sponsors the tournament, and she is unhappy the Russian has been granted a Wednesday start (although this is not without precedent) and a wildcard which could have been given to a German player. She described it as a “little strange”, although she is understood to have vented stronger feelings in private.
The French Open must make the next move
The organisers of the French Open have a big decision to make.
It will be too late for Sharapova to gain direct entry into the tournament. And to survive the cut for qualifying – which is made on 1 May – she would have to reach the final in Stuttgart. That would be a mighty achievement after 15 months out of the game, when faced with a field which includes eight of the world’s top 10.
The French player Jo-Wilfried Tsonga has said publicly he doesn’t think the French Tennis Federation should award Sharapova a wildcard and the initial comments of the new FFT president Bernard Giudicelli were not at all reassuring for Sharapova.
He told a meeting of the Roland Garros press commission – before he met Sharapova in California – that the tournament would prefer she returned when “completely rehabilitated”. He described integrity as one of their most important responsibilities and suggested it would be difficult to invite Sharapova at the same time as they have increased their funding for the fight against doping.
Will Sharapova be seen at Wimbledon this summer?
After the French Open, the surface turns to grass. There are tournaments in the Netherlands, in Mallorca, and then three on British soil in Nottingham, Birmingham and Eastbourne.
The LTA says it is yet to discuss or offer wildcards to anyone. Sharapova would need a wildcard to enter at least two, and almost certainly all three of the British events. Announcements tend to be made late on (it is always handy to have a card or two up your sleeve), by which time Sharapova may be committed elsewhere. Whatever the outcome, it seems unlikely the LTA will offer the five time Grand Slam champion a wildcard months in advance so they can use her presence as a marketing tool to drive ticket sales.
Which takes us to Wimbledon. Sharapova would probably need to reach a semi-final and a quarter-final from the three events she will play before the entry list is revealed to avoid having her fate determined by the All England Club’s tennis sub-committee.
If she does not have sufficient ranking points, then Tim Henman could prove to be a significant figure. Henman is not only a board member but also chairs this committee, which traditionally meets to discuss wildcards on the eve of the announcement, which is scheduled this year for Wednesday 21 June.
The All England Club aspires to the highest standards and last year announced increased anti-doping measures. My sense from several conversations is that a wildcard may not be offered to Sharapova, if she does indeed require one.
That still leaves one final scenario. If Sharapova does not make the main draw by right, she is quite likely to have enough ranking points to enter qualifying. These matches are staged at the Bank of England Sports Grounds in Roehampton, where the public can come and go as they please and media facilities are limited.
The grounds seem ill equipped to host Sharapova and all those her presence would attract, but I understand improvements are already high on the All England Club’s priority list, and that ticketed entry is one option under consideration.