British No 2 Heather Watson is the latest player to query the red carpet being rolled out for Maria Sharapova, who will begin her comeback from a 15-month doping ban with wild-card entries to big-money tournaments in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome.
Sharapova is also being permitted to make her return midway through the Stuttgart event, where her ban runs out on the third day of the event. But Watson questioned the morality of this enthusiastic welcome, saying: “From the tournament standpoint she will bring in the crowds, and make money. But from a moral standpoint you should have to work your way back up if you’ve been on a ban. It just seems a bit easy.”
Watson’s views chime with those already expressed by a number of female players – Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and Dominika Cibulkova among them – while Andy Murray set a hare running last month when he used almost identical language, saying: “I think you should really have to work your way back.”
Yet such objections do not seem to concern Steve Simon, chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, who again used the phrase “tremendous integrity” to describe Sharapova. “She has stepped up the minute she made a mistake,” said Simon, in relation to Sharapova’s pre-emptive media briefing 13 months ago. “We like to see all of our athletes do that. We’ve had too many times where they’ve denied and then been proven wrong.”
Simon insisted that there would be no preferential treatment for Sharapova in Stuttgart, where she will not even be able to visit the Porsche Arena until her ban elapses on April 26. Her team will have to organise off-site practice facilities off their own bats, and she will only collect her accreditation when the offices open on the morning of her first-round match.
Still, Sharapova’s critics would argue that being permitted to play in Stuttgart in the first place is a bonus she does not deserve. Simon made repeated reference to the rules, saying that “you have to be available to play in your first-round match”, and adding that “in Stuttgart the first round is traditionally played over three days.” Yet there is no specific guidance on this unusual situation in any of tennis’s various codes, so it feels more like an interpretation than a rule.
“There are many instances when the player is not at the tournament until the night before or the morning of the match,” said Simon, “based upon where they are travelling from, so that is not a factor. They have to be available for their match within the first round. If Maria’s suspension had ended on the Thursday she wouldn’t have been able to play, period.
“The one thing I do think the players respect,” Simon continued, “is that Maria’s being treated like any other player according to the rules. We have seen some players express favourable opinions and we’ve had some not in agreement with the rule, but it’s the rule.”
Watson’s own stay in Miami came to an early conclusion when she lost to Romania’s Patricia Tig on Wednesday. It was the first in a dismal series of results for the four British players scheduled on that day, concluding with Kyle Edmund’s failure to close out victory against Jared Donaldson after holding three match points. In between, Dan Evans also succumbed to world No 108 Ernesto Escobedo and Aljaz Bedene was in a losing position against Jan-Lennard Struff when he retired with a sore hamstring.
With Andy Murray now back in the UK to check on an elbow injury, the only Briton still standing in the Miami Open is 10th seed Johanna Konta, who is due to open her campaign today against Belarusian qualifier Aliaksandra.