Respecting, but disagreeing with, the Maria Sharapova decision

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“I decided not to give Maria Sharapova a wild card,” French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli said on Facebook Live on Tuesday. “I’m very sorry for Maria, very sorry for her fans ... But it’s my responsibility, it’s my mission to protect the game and protect the high standards of the game.

“While there can be a wild card for return from injury, there can’t be a wild card for return from doping.”

From a broad point of view, this is an eminently respectable decision. Paris is a city that has seen one of its signature sporting events, the Tour de France, decimated by doping. Here was a chance for another of those events, the French Open, to take a strong, if symbolic, stand against any hint of the same taint. 

“I know the media dimension Maria has,” Giudicelli said. “I know the expectation fans and broadcasters have. But it didn’t seem possible for me to go above the strong commitment and the respect for the anti-doping code [that Roland Garros has].”

Like I said, it’s hard to argue against that viewpoint, and in an age when sports fans tend to believe “it’s all about TV” or “it’s all about the stars,” it can be seen as refreshing. Roland Garros recently lost its other top women’s draw, Serena Williams, and could have used Sharapova’s presence. Instead, the French has used this wild card—or the lack of one—to send a no-tolerance message to the sports world at large.

Still, respecting Giudicelli’s decision doesn’t mean we have to agree with it. From a less broad, more individualistic standpoint, the decision is too harsh. I thought Sharapova should have been given the wild card, and that the compromise that was floated—allow her into the qualifying and let her work her way into the main draw—was a reasonable one.

To me, the operative concept in this situation is “time served.” Sharapova has already been suspended from all tournaments for 15 months for what was deemed negligence; that was a fair sentence. She wasn’t the victim in this story, the way she has tried to portray herself, but she has done more time than an athlete would for a first offense in an American team sport.

“There are no grounds for any member of the [anti-doping program] to penalize any player beyond the sanctions set forth in the final decisions resolving these matters,” WTA CEO Steve Simon said in defense of his player.

Sharapova’s status, the status that would normally earn her a wild card, has also been earned. She isn’t merely a famous player or a bankable star. She’s a former No. 1, a five-time major champion and a two-time French Open champion.

“I don’t think a suspension should wipe out the career’s worth of work,” Simon said.

While the opinions of other players obviously matter, so do those of the fans who pay to see tennis, and the officials who pay to put on tournaments. I wouldn’t say that the French Open or the women’s game “needs” Sharapova; the tour and the tournament are bigger than any one player. But I also wouldn’t say that directors at smaller events, who can more readily use her name on their marquees, should feel pressure to follow Roland Garros’ example. At the Grand Slams, a wild card into the qualifying draw still seems like a fair middle ground. Eventually, Sharapova’s ranking will climb high enough to make the point moot.

“If this is what it takes to rise up again,” Sharapova said, “then I am in it all the way, every day.”

The French Open has used Sharapova to make a broader point, and that’s their right—messaged received, and respected. But the narrower point is just as important: She has served her time and earned her status, and she’ll do more for the game when she’s on the court than she will when she’s off it.

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