What’s going to happen as Sharapova’s ban ends?
A year ago, Maria Sharapova’s name was synonymous with big-name, big-brand tennis. Now, her name is forever tainted by a failed drugs test that saw her banned from the sport for over a year.
Sharapova failed a doping test for Meldonium at the Australian Open last year (2016) and was initially handed a two-year sentence that was then commuted down to 15 months. She makes her return as a wild card entry at Stuttgart on April 26th, the first day after her ban. Notably, the Stuttgart Porsche Tennis Grand Prix starts on April 24th, and tournament organizers have promised to schedule her first round match to accommodate when her ban ends two days later. If this feels like an extraordinarily generous gesture, that is because it is, and points to the value organizers see in Sharapova playing their tourneys.
What is a wild card and who gets one?
Every tennis tournament on the ATP or WTA has a few spots in their draws for wild cards to the main draw and the qualifying draw. Players can be awarded one if they are from the home country of the tournament if they are popular, and/or if they are previously high-ranked players attempting a comeback. There is not a lot of precedent for how a player coming back from a doping ban should be treated, but Sharapova meets the last two criteria to get wild cards into many tennis tournaments.
Sharapova has also been given a wild card to the Madrid Open, where she has been champion previously. She has agreed to take part in a few sponsor and promotion related events around the Madrid Open, such as the Tie Break Tens, where players play a best of 10 tie-break against opponents. Also joining Sharapova will be Japanese super star Kei Nishikori.
Speculation is rampant about what other tournaments might provide wild cards to Sharapova. Many tournaments are looking to maximize their spectatorship and profit in a niche sports market, and Sharapova is a magnet for selling tickets. In that context, dissenting opinions on how athletes returning from doping bans should be treated may not hold much weight.
The five-time grand slam champion is a popular figure in tennis and attracts a huge spectatorship when she plays. As a former French Open and Wimbledon champion, there is debate as to whether she is deserving of a wild card to grand slam main draws. That her ranking has dropped due to a doping ban instead of something that is less of a scandal, such as injury, will be considered.
At Wimbledon, the demand for tickets always exceeds the number available and there is less pressure to operate on purely business terms. If this means the Championships will hold up their stern standards of etiquette and ethics is yet to be seen.
Tournaments will also have to consider which local or up-and-coming players will have to be displaced from a draw and be denied the opportunity to further their careers, and whether providing a wild card to a previously banned player could be justified at a cost to a player who has done nothing wrong.
There have even been suggestions that Sharapova should play through the qualifier draws for the upcoming slams if her ranking is not sufficiently high enough by then.
Sharapova has stated her intent to make a strong return to the game, and it may be the case that she brings her ranking up high enough to qualify for some tournaments later in the year without needing wild cards.