How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?

Wild card. “An unpredictable element in a situation”.

Although there is still almost two months until she’s allowed to return to the tennis circuit, the noise surrounding Maria Sharapova’s comeback has been building in recent weeks, with Rome this week following in the footsteps of Stuttgart and Madrid by confirming that it has given her a wildcard into its 2017 tournament.

The question that’s now being raised relates to the awkward and unenviable position for organisers of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, two of the sport’s biggest tournaments. Namely, do they give their former champion, one of the biggest names in the sport, wildcards into their prestigious events, or do they turn their backs on their former champion in her hour of need?

Whose decision is it?

I was bending the truth slightly with my earlier definition of wild card. In fact, the term has its own definition strictly relating to tennis, “A player, usually without ranking, who is allowed to enter a tournament at the discretion of the tournament committee after regularly qualifying competitors have been selected.”

As this states, the decisions are very much down to the tournament committees. The two Grand Slams are less likely to be swayed by any commercial pull Sharapova would bring to a regular WTA-level tournament. Both will likely sell the same amount of tickets whether or not the Russian takes part in the tournament. However, parties with huge influence behind the scenes, including tournament sponsors and Sharapova’s sponsors, will be sure to have their say. After all, the old adage is that there is no such thing as bad publicity and many will suggest that allowing Sharapova to play will increase television ratings and get people talking about the events.

The tournament organisers, though, may prefer to align themselves with a different proverb when making the decision, “no news is good news”. Both tournaments are as traditional as it comes and would prefer not to be put in a position which could cause a slight blemish on their longstanding reputations. They are well aware that, if they decide to grant wildcards to Sharapova, the decision carries a certain degree of murky, shameful embarrassment.

Sharapova completed the career Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 2012

Working her way back to the top

Men’s world number one Andy Murray was asked about the issue earlier this week, saying “I think you should really have to work your way back”. This is the attitude that the majority of tennis fans and pundits have when discussing the topic of Sharapova’s return. While some felt some sympathy for Sharapova upon the announcement of her suspension – the substance she had illegally taken had only been banned a few weeks before she had taken it – much of this has waned due to the less-than-humble and somewhat undignified way she reacted to the decision to suspend her for two years.

Despite my opinion being that Sharapova should be allowed to resume her career upon the end of her suspension, I felt deeply angered by the decision to award Sharapova a wildcard for next month’s tournament in Stuttgart. Her suspension – reduced from 24 months to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport – expires on the Wednesday of the tournament and she won’t be allowed on site until that day, so the first round will be carried over until Wednesday to accommodate her, which, in my opinion, does not set the example the sport should be setting.

I also found the decision to announce Sharapova as the first player in the field pretty offensive, especially given that the tournament’s two-time defending champion was the then world number one, and German, Angelique Kerber. The Stuttgart tournament has a fantastic reputation with players and fans alike, and always has a very strong field (eight of the world’s top nine players have since announced they’ll be playing) so the decision to promote it based on Sharapova’s return leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The fact that German Fed Cup captain Barbara Rittner and former top 10 player Dominique Monami liked my Tweet about this at the time, gives an indication of the depth of feeling about this behind the scenes of tennis.

While it would have felt fairer for Sharapova to have to play some smaller WTA and ITF events on her way back, I don’t particularly mind that she has been given wildcards into Madrid and Rome. Her suspension will have been fully lifted by the time these tournaments come around, she’s a former champion at both tournaments and as Andy Murray also pointed out, “most tournaments will do what they think is best for their event. If they think big names will sell more seats, they’re going to do that.”

While the points on offer in Rome will not count towards her Wimbledon qualification (the entry list is due to be announced based on the rankings after Madrid), given the points on offer at the Stuttgart and Madrid events, it’s possible that Sharapova won’t actually need a wildcard for Wimbledon as she could theoretically win enough matches to automatically qualify. On the other hand, she could face opponents ranked inside the top ten or twenty, with considerably more match practice than her, in the first round of each, and end up with very few ranking points. For Roland Garros, however, her suspension ends too late. With the entry list being confirmed in mid-April, her only means of playing will be via a wildcard.

One of the biggest names in sport

While I feel like I’m playing Devil’s Advocate with myself, the position I keep coming back to is that surely it’s better if wildcards are given to players who have a shot at a decent run into the tournament, especially those with the potential to win it, rather than handing them to 16 or 17 year olds who succumb in straight sets in the first round.

I accept that a tradition of Grand Slam wildcards has been to give them to young players from the nation of the tournament as a means of blooding them in and giving them a taste of what the future could hold, but surely fans would prefer to see a big name who can progress through the draw instead of a young unknown?

As a two-time Roland Garros and one-time Wimbledon champion, Maria Sharapova certainly has a shot at both titles. I believe that on her return, though short of match practice, she’ll still have the game to beat any other player, perhaps with the exception of Serena, on her day.

Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004, aged just 17

What’s going to happen?

Whether the tournament organisers will base their decision on her form and the likelihood of her winning their tournaments remains to be seen, and I expect this will actually be one of the less decisive factors in their decision-making processes. It’s probable that their decisions will come down to how her inclusion would be received by fans, her fellow players and others behind the scenes. The views of Murray, Rittner and Monami are clear, but Sharapova’s backers, including Nike, Head and IMG are giants within the game, and pressure from them could sway the decision.

Personally, I expect to see Sharapova at Roland Garros. The president of the French Tennis Federation, Bernard Giudicelli, revealed today that he has tentatively agreed to meet Sharapova and hear her case for why she feels she deserves a wildcard. Giudicelli will then meet tournament director Guy Forget to make the decision. On top of this, her form there has been exceptional in recent years (two titles and a final in her last four appearances) and I think the fact that it’s either wildcard or bust will probably work in Sharapova’s favour.

With Wimbledon, I find it much more difficult to predict what will happen. The ideal scenario for the tournament committee is that Sharapova has two great weeks in Stuttgart and Madrid and therefore qualifies for the main draw on her own merit. There’s also the chance that she will only pick up enough points to make the qualifying draw. While I think there would still be a slight chance that she’d be given a wildcard into the main draw, I think the tournament organisers would be happy enough to let her go through qualifying and avoid any wildcard controversy.

The biggest headache will come if she loses early in Stuttgart and Madrid and requires a wildcard for either Wimbledon qualifying or the main draw. For me, if this situation arises, it would be a bit of a cop out to give her a wildcard into qualifying, and I think the organisers will be of a similar opinion. Which would then leave them with the ultimate conundrum – Sharapova or no Sharapova. Perhaps good performances in Rome and Paris would give them a logical rationale for allowing her to play, but sections of the press and tennis fandom would certainly cry foul play.

One things for certain, I don’t envy them.

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