Maria Sharapova has returned from a 15-month doping suspension and hardly missed a step, advancing to the semifinals of her first tournament back, in the WTA Premier event in Stuttgart. While the draw has done her some favors–Ekaterina Makarova knocked out Agnieszka Radwanska, and Anett Kontaveit ousted Garbine Muguruza, Sharapova has shown she’s ready to compete at the highest level, winning about 57% of points against three credible opponents.
Many players have publicly stated that Sharapova doesn’t deserve to get wild cards, often because WCs are a sort of bonus, and a player who broke the rules doesn’t deserve any kind of handout. We’re likely to hear a lot more about it, as we won’t learn her status for the French Open for another two weeks.
However, wild cards are at the discretion of each individual tournament, and barring new regulations for players returning from doping bans, tournaments have their own incentives. Events often choose wild cards from a marketing perspective, granting main draw spots to former stars, young prospects, or local favorites.
Tournaments don’t have an explicit contract with their fans, but if they did, it would have to begin with an obligation to put the highest-quality product on the court. Most of the time, the ATP and WTA ranking and entry systems accomplish this, guaranteeing main draw places to the highest-ranked players. Occasionally, though, the ranking system fails and massively underrates the quality of a player.
Sharapova, obviously, is such a case. Unranked this week, and ranked #262 next week if she loses today to Kristina Mladenovic, she is already performing at the level of a top-20 player. My research suggests she may very soon be the best active player in women’s tennis, even if it takes many months for her official ranking to catch up.
Wild cards are the only mechanism tournaments are given to correct for the limitations of the ranking system. If the French Open (or any other event) wants to improve the quality of their draw, it should give Sharapova a wild card. If I am right that tournaments owe it to the fans to put on court the highest-level competition they possibly can, there are few opportunities so clear-cut as this one to improve the quality of a draw with a single player’s entry.
I can hear the objections already. First, as so many have claimed, Sharapova doesn’t “deserve” this kind of benefit. Yet by definition, wild cards are for players who don’t deserve a main draw entry. If they deserved one, their ranking (or “special” or “protected” ranking, if returning from injury) would guarantee them one. We use the words “deserve” and “earn” rather vaguely in this context, perhaps saying that a former great in his final year deserves a wild card based on his past contributions to tennis, or that a player has earned the free entry because she won a play-off of some sort.
It’s certainly true that some wild cards are more earned than others, but ultimately it’s beside the point. Even if it offends our sense of fairness, the players who most deserve a place in a draw are those who will make it more competitive. Last year, the French Federation gave wild cards to the likes of Alize Lim and Tessah Andrianjafitrimo, who lost in the first round to Qiang Wang without winning a single game. The eight wild cards won a total of three matches–one of them against another wild card. Except by virtue of being French, most of these wild cards didn’t do much to earn their places, and they had almost no impact on the tournament itself.
Beyond the claim that Sharapova, having broken the rules, doesn’t deserve a handout, there is a more extreme position, that her 15-month suspension wasn’t a sufficiently severe punishment. We can group that with another potential objection, that the French Open can’t be seen to endorse a doper. This is one of the many unfortunate side-effects of a weak central authority in tennis. By this argument, every tournament with the option of granting Sharapova an entry is required to re-litigate her doping ban. Even if we sidestep some of the controversial aspects of her ban and stipulate that she knowingly did something very bad, this seems nonsensical.
The whole point of having a central authority for doping enforcement is so that tournaments needn’t all police the players themselves. By issuing a 15-month ban, the ITF essentially spoke for all affiliated tournaments, saying that after 15 months (and exactly one day, as it turned out), Sharapova’s penalty would be paid and she would, in a sense, be rehabilitated. Giving a rehabilitated player a wild card is in no way an endorsement of her behavior, any more than giving a job to an ex-convict is an endorsement of the criminal act that put him in jail.
As a fan–even when I wish Sharapova wouldn’t win so many matches against my favorites–I want to see the best possible level of tennis every week. Now that her suspension is complete, every week that Sharapova wants to compete but can’t enter a top-level event is a missed opportunity for the sport. As great as the French Open is, it would be better with Sharapova than without her.