Regulations for Returning Rule-Breakers

Next month, Maria Sharapova will complete her 15-month doping ban and return to the WTA tour in Stuttgart, where she has been granted a wild card. It’s no surprise that tournaments are eager to invite an extremely marketable former No. 1, and Sharapova has already lined up wild cards for the Premier-level events in Madrid and Rome.

This has generated no small amount of controversy. Many people see wild cards as a sort of reward or gift that is inappropriate for a player caught breaking such a serious rule. Many fans and fellow players think that, even after she has undergone a severe penalty, Sharapova doesn’t deserve this type of advantage.

Crucially, neither the ITF–which handles drug testing and issued the suspension–nor the WTA–which sets the guidelines for tournament entry–has anything to say about the situation. Each event must make its own decision. The French Open may refuse to invite Sharapova this year (and Wimbledon could follow suit) but any other tournament organizer who cares about selling tickets and sponsorships would want her in the draw.

In other words, with the possible exception of Paris and London, Sharapova will be able to pick up where she left off, entering whichever tournaments she wishes. The only disadvantage is that she won’t be seeded, meaning that we could see some draws that will make the Indian Wells quarter of death look like a friendly club tournament. If she plays well and stays healthy, she’ll probably earn her way to some seeds before the end of the season.

I’m not interested the argument about whether Sharapova “deserves” these wild cards. I’m not a fan of tournaments handing prize money and ranking points opportunities to favorites in any case, but on the other hand, Maria’s penalty was already severe. It doesn’t seem right that she would spend months scrambling for points in lower-level ITFs. When Viktor Troicki was suspended for one year in 2013, he was granted only two tour-level wild cards, so he needed six months to regain his former ranking.

My concern is for the Troickis of the tennis world. Both Sharapova’s and Troicki’s comebacks will ultimately be shaped by the decisions of individual tournaments, so Sharapova–an immensely marketable multiple-Slam winner–will get in almost everywhere she wants, while Troicki was forced to start almost from zero. Put another way: Sharapova’s 15-month ban will last 15 months (exactly 15 months, since she’ll play her first-round match in Stuttgart on the first possible day) while Troicki’s 12-month suspension knocked him out of contention for almost 18 months.

The WTA needs a set of rules that determine exactly what a player can expect upon return from a suspension. Fortunately, they already have something in place that can be adapted to serve the purpose: the “special ranking” for those with long-term injuries. (The ATP’s “protected ranking” rule is similar.) If a player is out of action for more than six months, she can use the ranking she held when she last competed to enter up to eight events, including up to two Premier Mandatories and two Grand Slams. Whether the player is iconic or anonymous, she has a fair chance to rebuild her ranking after recovering from injury.

This is my proposal: When a player returns from suspension, treat her like a player returning from injury, with one difference: For the first year back, no wild cards.  Sharapova would get into eight events–she might choose Stuttgart, Rome, Madrid, Roland Garros, Birmingham, Wimbledon, Toronto, and Cincinnati. If she played well in her first two months back, she would probably have a high enough ranking to get into the US Open without help, and the whole issue would cease to matter.

The details don’t need to be exactly the same as post-injury comebacks. I can imagine including two to four additional special ranking entries into ITFs or qualifying, in case a player wants to work her way back to tour level, as a sort of rehab assignment. The important thing here is that the rules would be the same for everyone. As harsh as Sharapova’s penalty is, it pales in comparison to the effect a 15-month ban could have on a less popular tour regular, as Troicki’s example demonstrates.

Like it or not, there will be more doping bans, and unless the tours institute this sort of standardized treatment, there will be more controversies about whether this player or that player deserves wild cards after they return to the tour. The ultimate severity of a penalty will always depend on many factors, but a player’s popularity should never be one of them.