Exclusive: Maria Sharapova to be given qualifying not main draw French Open wildcard

Simon Briggs
Maria Sharapova in Stuttgart on Monday - dpa

Maria Sharapova’s hopes of a rapid return to grand slam tennis are likely to be set back by the French ruling body’s refusal to grant her automatic entry into the main draw for Roland Garros.

However, The Daily Telegraph understands that Sharapova has a strong chance of receiving a wild card into qualifying for the opening slam of the season next month. As Sharapova prepares for her comeback from a drugs ban in Stuttgart tomorrow, she could be given a chance of making the French Open even if she fails to reach the final here on Sunday – the minimum requirement for her to earn a place in the slam’s preliminary tournament by right.

Last month, French Tennis Federation president Bernard Giudicelli met Sharapova in Los Angeles and sounded unconvinced about her suitability for a main-draw wild card – a currency usually given to emerging talents from the home nation or well-known players returning from injury.

“We will have to reflect on it … [it] is about an important topic like doping,” said Giudicelli, who has promised to deliver his verdict in the week starting May 15.

But by inviting Sharapova into the qualifying event, the FFT would win on every level. While this could not be portrayed as a craven surrender to her profile and influence, it would still give a huge boost to the preliminary week at Roland Garros – and the most likely end result would still find Sharapova reaching the main draw via three wins over low-ranked opponents.

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Sharapova may carry the stigma of a positive doping test but she is also a global icon. This makes her especially valuable at a time when the absence of mother-to-be Serena Williams, as well as the possible unavailability of new mother Victoria Azarenka and knife-attack victim Petra Kvitova, could leave women’s draws short of star quality.

The All England Club is likely to face the same dilemma as the FFT – unless Sharapova takes the matter out of its hands by gathering 600-odd rankings points between now and the end of the Internazionali BNL D’Italia in four weeks’ time, and thus earning a place in the Wimbledon main draw by right.

And if the FFT does not hand a main-draw wild card to Sharapova, the All England Club would find it difficult to grant her one without being portrayed as appeasers on the issue of doping. Tim Henman, who chairs the wild-card committee, is understood to take a strong line on this. In all probability, Sharapova will collect the 260-odd rankings points that she needs to earn over the next five weeks to win a place in Wimbledon qualification. Although there is an awkward detail here. Unlike Roland Garros, Wimbledon does not have the facilities to run qualifying on its main site.

Roberta Vinci will face Sharapova on Wednesday and said she opposed the Russian being given wildcards 

As a result, the event is staged on the Bank of England ground in Roehampton. In normal circumstances, there are no stands, no media facilities, and the relatively small number of spectators simply walk in without charge. All that would have to change, at no little expense, were Sharapova to be involved. Still, as with the French Open, there would be countervailing benefits in profile for the event as a whole.

Back in Stuttgart, Sharapova will end her 15-month doping ban on Wednesday with a first-round match against Italy’s Roberta Vinci. Following the lead set by many of the leading players, Vinci said on Monday that she did not approve of the wild cards being handed out to Sharapova. One side-effect is that Vinci’s compatriot, Francesca Schiavone, is likely to miss out on a place in Rome in three weeks’ time.

“I don’t agree about the wild card here,” Vinci explained, “and about the wild card in Rome and the other tournaments, I think she [Sharapova] is a great player, person. She made her mistakes, for sure, but she paid and she can return to play but without any wild cards, any help, but just to play.

“And, for me, probably she would play two or three tournaments and be in the top 30, for sure. I don’t want to think right now about the wild cards. I’m just staying focused as I have to play against her.”

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