‘Drug cheat’ Maria Sharapova is controversially back in tennis. Deal with it.

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Maria Sharapova returns to tennis Wednesday afternoon after a 15-month drug suspension and even before she takes the court, the Russian superstar is already embroiled in a major controversy regarding her merit and eligibility to play top-tier tournaments, started by hypocritical peers funneling jealousy and dislike through a phony naivety about the inner-workings of the sport that makes them rich.

More than a dozen players, including Sharapova’s first comeback opponent Roberta Vinci, have publicly complained that the Russian, who is currently unranked due to not having played in the last 12 months, is being given wild cards into the main draws of tournaments instead of having to play qualifiers or completely starting from nothing and beginning her comeback with bottom-tier events with $15,000 in total prize money and fully building her way back to the top of the sport. They view main-draw wild cards as an unjust reward for a player who was suspended for taking a banned substance.

Forget that Sharapova has already served a lengthy suspension, one not commiserate with the mild, newly banned drug she was taking nor the manner in which she was caught taking it. Apparently doing her time isn’t good enough. She needs to start over too, wasting months toiling in obscurity.

“A player who has tested positive should start from scratch like everyone else and win her place back,” French player Alize Cornet told reporters this week. “You shouldn’t roll out the red carpet for her.”

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It’s not exactly a red carpet, but yes, the five-time Grand Slam champion, former world No. 1 and one of the two most recognizable faces in the sport was given a wild card to this week’s event in Stuttgart (which is sponsored by one of Sharapova’s endorsers, Porsche) as well as top-tier tournaments next month in Madrid and Rome. On May 15, French Open officials will announce whether they’ll give Sharapova a free berth into their Grand Slam event (in a live online event, in case you wondered about the virtues of the French Tennis Federation). She could qualify for the year’s second Slam based on her rankings depending on how she performs in those three comeback tournaments but it’s not likely.

Those wild cards haven’t been popular on either tour. Caroline Wozniacki called them “disrespectful.” Simona Halep, using some circuitous logic, thinks the WCs set a bad example for youngsters because “it’s not OK to help with a wild card the player that was banned for doping.” Andy Murray agrees with Cornet. And Aga Radwanska says Sharapova should “rebuild her career a different way” and that “she wouldn’t have a chance for a wild card [if it were in my hands].”

Of course she wouldn’t. Radwanska is 2-13 career against Sharapova and she, like the rest of the field, can look ahead to the French Open and Wimbledon, see no Sharapova, Serena, Victoria Azarenka or Petra Kvitova and see one of the most wide open Grand Slam fields in nearly 20 years. These protests are acts of self preservation and self-satisfaction, not a desire to save the sport from the perils of PEDs.

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Jealousy and opportunism lies at the heart of every criticism, even if it’s not overt. Sharapova isn’t greatly liked on the WTA, partly due to the fact that she’s built an island for herself, doesn’t fraternize with peers and is fond of using her pulpit to criticize others. There aren’t many Maria Sharapova fans in the locker room and it shows in the public comments made about her.

But the players criticizing Sharapova still don’t seem to realize the hypocrisy of their arguments. Though tennis is the most meritocratic of sports, it can’t help but cater to the biggest names. Every player critical of Sharapova has, at one time or another, taken a wild card into a tournament, denying a lesser-known player a spot in the draw based solely on their own star power. The circumstances were far different, sure. Most of those wild cards, like the one Andy Murray took into Barcelona, come when players plan to skip a tournament and then change their minds at the last minute, usually because they didn’t advance far in the previous event and want some more court time. But in this fantasy world where everyone should earn their place, the wild-card star system would have to be flawed too, right?

(AP)
AP

The reason it isn’t, and the reason Sharapova will keep getting wild cards into the Stuttgarts and Romes of the tennis calendar, is because of the thing that makes all sports go and dictates almost every decision made by athletic governing bodies: money. Maria Sharapova is a high-profile tennis mogul, the second-best player of her generation, a marketer’s dream and the richest female athlete in the world (Forbes say she’s earned north of $300 million in her career). When she asks for a wild card – and she’s allowed an unlimited allotment per WTA rules for Grand Slam winners – what tournament director is going to say no? It’d be negligent not to. Sharapova draws interest. (When’s the last time the opening round at Stuttgart drew worldwide attention? When’s the last time any round at Stuttgart – and this is a fine tournament with seven of the top 10 players in the world in the field – drew worldwide attention?)

The French Open and Wimbledon can afford to take a self-serving stand because they’re not dependent on names to sell tickets. (Though attendance for a Svitolina-Bacsinszky final would surely make the FFT cringe.) Other tournaments aren’t so lucky. They need stars and, right now, Maria Sharapova is the biggest one they’ve got. To complain about this, as her peers have done, spits in the eye of the capitalistic enterprise that has made them millionaires.

What other sport suspends players and then doesn’t let them back at the top level of the game? A baseball player gets kicked out for 50 games and he’s allowed to come back to his Major League team immediately. A football player sits four games for PEDs and doesn’t have to go play in a sandlot league in Ohio upon his return. The punishment is sitting out, not getting pushed down the ladder upon your return.

People in the middle of the argument say Sharapova should go halfway and only accept wild cards into qualifying, thus ensuring she’d have to earn her way into the main draw (usually with three victories in qualies). This would win her goodwill, it’s argued. (With who? She’s 30 years old. Whatever your opinion on Sharapova, you made it long ago.) And maybe that’s the fairer path but isn’t a wild card into the qualification round just as unfair as the qualification into the main tournament? She didn’t earn either, right?

Logic is immaterial. This is a specialized reaction for a locker room outcast. If someone else on the WTA were coming back from getting railroaded by doping and tennis officials, they’d be welcomed with open arms. Instead, Sharapova is the villain for having the audacity to reap the rewards of her fame and start on the faster track back to the top of the sport. But once she’s in the draw, it’s up to Maria Sharapova to win matches, earn points and get back to the top of the game. Wild cards can only do much.