Tennis debate: Should Maria Sharapova have been given Stuttgart wildcard?

Charlie Eccleshare
Maria Sharapova's 15-month doping ban ends next week - pa

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In March 2016 Maria Sharapova announced that she was to serve a ban for testing positive for the banned substance Meldonium

An initial ban of two years, starting from January 2016 when Sharapova failed the test at the Australian Open, was reduced to 15 months on appeal, and Sharapova is eligible to return next Wednesday. 

She has controversially been awarded a wildcard for the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart (Porsche is also a sponsor of Sharapova), despite the tournament beginning two days earlier on the Monday. It is a strange situation that means Sharapova will not be able to even enter the tournament's site until two days later when her ban expires. 

The case against the wildcard

It is no secret that Sharapova has few, if any, friends in the locker room. Unsurprisingly then, a number of players have suggested it sets a poor example to give the Russian a Stuttgart wildcard.

The normally uncontroversial Angelique Kerber, who is herself a Porsche ambassador, said: "It's a little bit strange, also, for the players that she can walk on site on Wednesday and she can play on Wednesday."

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"It's a German tournament, and we [have] so many good German players, so this is also a little bit strange." 

Caroline Wozniacki said the decision was "disrespectful to the other players and the WTA."

Andy Murray added: “I think you should really have to work your way back.”

Alize Cornet then summarised the view of many of the players on the WTA Tour when she responded to the WTA's tweet saying "Maria Sharapova's rivals are looking forward to her return" with a simple "excuse me??". 

Cornet

The case for the wildcard

Markus Gunthardt, the Porsche Grand Prix tournament director, is unrepentant about his decision. He argues that there have been Wednesday starts for players before, and that Sharapova, as a three-time champion, deserves a place in the draw. 

Gunthardt adds that supporters will be desperate to see her in action, and since she will have served her time there's no reason to withhold a wildcard. He also denies the accusation that allowing Sharapova to play is simply to sell tickets, since he claims the tournament is sold out year after year with or without a superstar returning from a doping ban. 

Gunthardt has not been alone in defending the decision - the legendary American Chris Evert said: "You can't blame the tournaments really for wanting to be successful and wanting to enhance their tournament by having a big draw like Sharapova.

"She is doing everything within the rules and she [will have] fulfilled her obligation of 15 months so I am not critical of that decision that the tournament made whatsoever."

And not all of the locker room is opposed to Sharapova getting a wildcard. World No 5 Simona Halep said: "In my opinion, she can receive wildcards because she was No. 1 [and a] grand slam champion."

Angelique Kerber is among the players who has criticised Sharapova's Stuttgart wildcard

Verdict

The Stuttgart organisers are not breaking any rules by what they are doing, but they are clearly bending over backwards to accommodate Sharapova. Doing so hardly sends the strongest message about zero tolerance on doping violations, and it is slightly disingenuous of Gunthardt to claim the tournament normally sells out, since clearly Sharapova's return will bring the event unprecedented interest and coverage.  

Sharapova has also not covered herself in glory with her frequent public appearances during the ban and what many felt was an excessive celebration when the suspension was reduced from two years to 15 months

It would have been a huge public relations win for her if she had turned down some of the wildcards she has been presented with or even offered to play qualifying for some of them.  

Instead she returns more divisive than ever.

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