The hype surrounding Maria Sharapova’s comeback demonstrates tennis’ problem with performance-enhancing drugs.
The five-time Grand Slam winner is clear to resume her career at the end of April, and her peers are divided on how she should be welcomed back to the professional ranks.
This division is especially intense in light of the decision by the Stuttgart tournament to reshuffle its schedule to accommodate the Russian’s return.
Speaking at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, former World No.1 Caroline Wozniacki raised some important concerns.
“I think it’s very questionable, allowing – no matter who it is – a player that is still banned to play a tournament that week,” Wozniacki said. “I think it’s disrespectful to the other players and the WTA.”
She went on to say, “When someone has been banned for drugs and something that is performance enhancing, I think that you deserve a second chance like everybody else, people make mistakes, but I think you should fight your way back from the bottom.”
World No.2 Angelique Kerber argued there are plenty of talented young German players who would benefit from the wild card instead.
But of course these younger players aren’t as likely to put bums on seats the same way a returning Sharapova can.
On the other side of the coin, Sharapova’s management company, IMG, were busily retweeting positive comments from the Russian’s fellow competitors, lauding her return.
Two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka was talking up how good Sharapova’s return is for the game, while Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig was extolling what a nice person Sharapova is.
This division among players, along with the manipulation of marketing companies and tournaments as to the manner in which a drug cheat returns to the court, highlights one of the biggest problems with doping in tennis.
It is clear those running the sport and some of those playing don’t see the problem with doping. And the question of if a drug cheat should be allowed to return is separate to this issue.
As the rules stand, anyone convicted of doping is able to return to their sport once their ban has been served, and this is the case with Sharapova. But she should have to work her way back to the top ranks of professional tennis, not be granted wildcards.
Players returning from injury are able to take advantage of the protected ranking system as well as seeking wildcards into tournaments. But there is nothing wrong with giving players returning from injury the opportunity to resume their careers where they left off.
An excellent example of a player battling serious injuries and returning to rebuild their career is Juan Martin del Potro.
‘Delpo’ hasn’t returned from injury once, he’s done it twice, and he was sidelined with his latest wrist injury for longer than Sharapova was banned for taking meldonium.
Funnily enough, there were those who argued that the Argentine, a former US Open champion, shouldn’t be given a wildcard to the event he won in 2009, as they considered it unfair to other players vying for one.
This ridiculous squabble is even more ridiculous in light of the debate about handing wildcards to a convicted drug cheat.
How can this even be a legitimate debate? Sharapova’s return should not be celebrated and tournaments certainly shouldn’t be laying down the red carpet.
The role of money in sport and how it manipulates events, players and even fans is ultimately at this issue’s heart.
If Sharapova wasn’t tall, blonde and absolutely stunning, would we be having the same conversation? Would any other player banned for using a prohibited substance receive the same treatment?
I’m not so sure.
Adding to this is the role of the WTA also hyping Sharapova’s return. In a now-deleted tweet and article, the administrative body of women’s tennis suggested that Sharapova’s return was being excitedly welcomed by all on the tour.
France’s Alize Cornet responded to the WTA, in a tweet that has also been deleted, suggesting that not everyone was as enthusiastic about the Russian’s return.
When a sport’s governing body is as giddy as a teenager who has just purchased Justin Bieber tickets at the prospect of a convicted doper returning to their sport, the depth of tennis’ problem with drugs is amplified.
Why did the WTA go down this path?
Apart from all the money they’ve already invested in her over the years, her beauty and athleticism is highly marketable and hence valuable.
Seen in this context, it’s easy to focus on tennis’ market share and audience rather than focusing on a culture based on fair play and respect for the sport.
The marketing machine that fuels the merry-go-round cannot differentiate between when it is appropriate to help a former top player return to sport and when that same player should be forced to start from the beginning again.
Dopers disrespect their fellow competitors, fans, the tournaments that give them their fame, and the sport’s governing body – which should know better than to celebrate the return of a drug cheat.