Sharapova Shunned by French Tennis Federation, Wild Card Denied
The FFT’s denial of Maria Sharapova into the French Open field sends a clear message.
By Jane Voigt
Updated: May 17, 2017 • 6:35 PM ET
Maria Sharapova won't be playing in this year's French Open.
Poor Maria Sharapova.
Since admitting to taking a banned substance last spring, she has been slapped around like a tennis ball in a heated rally. And on Tuesday, the French Tennis Federation (FFT) slapped her down again, denying her request for a wild card into the upcoming French Open. She will not slip and slide on the Paris red clay in the main draw or in the qualification draw this year.
The decision by the tournament’s owners opened a debate sure to cast a shadow on the Grand Slam. However, it pointed to a message players must take seriously — that the tours need discipline, and rules are made for the greater good — that no matter the tennis star’s value because of prior career performance or multi-million dollar sponsorships, tennis requires integrity first and foremost.
President of the FFT Bernard Giudicelli announced the finding during a live-streaming event on the organization’s Facebook page.
“She has handled her suspension with dignity and respect,” Giudicelli said. “But nonetheless, though there can be a wild card after an injury, there cannot be one for a return from doping. So it is up to Maria day after day, tournament after tournament, to find alone the strength she needs to win the big tittles without owning anything to anyone.”
The announcement came while Sharapova battled Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in their second-round match at the Italian Open in Rome, a tournament Sharapova entered with a wild card. She didn’t know then what the FFT had decided, although it tried to contact her prior to her match, according to The New York Times. To make her day even darker, Sharapova retired in the last set with an upper-thigh injury. When she found out she wasn’t bound for Paris, her reaction seemed to fit her competitive character.
“If this is what it takes to rise up again, then I am in it all the way, everyday,” she said via The Guardian. “No words, games, or actions will ever stop me from reaching my dreams. And I have many.”
Giudicelli had initially met with Sharapova in March at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. at her request and during her suspension. After their discussion, he promised to speak with French Open Tournament Director Guy Forget about the possibility of a wild card. But as weeks passed and Sharapova returned to the game last month at the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany, questions mounted about how the French Open owners would resolve the situation.
“The choice was not easy,” Giudicelli added. “Maria is a champion and she won our tournament twice; and, she’s a star. But, she cannot be treated separately. It’s a Grand Slam tournament, not a rock concert where we invite the best singers on the planet.”
The dramatic live-streaming medium accentuated the heightened attention that swirled around whether Sharapova would play or be forced to sit it out due to a situation she orchestrated by taking the banned substance meldonium.
Before Giudicelli began the announcement, hundreds of followers posted sympathetic comments on the FFT Facebook page: ‘Go Masha;’ ‘Let her play;’ #LetMariaPlay. But quickly following the revelation, followers came back with posts that spoke as loudly for Giudicelli.
Although the FFT’s choice was fraught with some illogic, it made a line in the sand when it comes to allowing a dirtied player easy access to a comeback. Steve Simon, chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association, argued that the decision extended the sanction, when in fact, it ended April 20.
“The basis for this just extends the penalty,” he said.
Tony Kornheiser of ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption said yesterday, “I thought what he [Giudicelli] said was courageous and forthright and took a lot of nerve. I think he’s probably supported by a majority of the players. But if I ran the French Open [with Serena out], how am I going to have a television show that anyone wants to watch?”
Kornheiser’s comment is the main argument against the FFT’s decision; that tennis needs its stars, and Sharapova being one of the biggest should get in because of that.
Roger Federer won’t be in Paris, either, opting to prepare for the grass court season and Wimbledon. Serena Williams won’t be there — she’s pregnant. And now without Sharapova, the power to draw viewers to French Open ESPN broadcasts will toughen. Or will they?
Sharapova isn’t a beloved tennis figure. Her piercing shrieks during matches distract numerous viewers. And, she has an offensive demeanor.
Televisions, or whatever device fans are watching at the time, can be muted. But the cool stride as she enters an arena, the fiddling with the strings between points, the slapping of her thigh to pick up the tempo and the dismissive hand shakes at the net with competitors after a match are deal-breakers. People just don’t like her competitive package, no matter how good her tennis is.
Like, who does she think she is? The reincarnation of Chris Evert, aptly labeled “The Ice Princess” during the 1970s and 80s?
Tracy Austin, two-time U.S. Open winner and Tennis Channel commentator, said yesterday, “[The] overwhelming number of players are heartened by the FFT decision.”
Of course they are. It’s their sport to which Sharapova has given a bad name, even if the French Open would have been a good chance for a wider audience to see her play. More viewers get ESPN than Tennis Channel.
But everyone will have to wait.
Had Sharapova advanced to the third round against Lucic-Baroni on Tuesday, where there was no clear indication that she would’ve won the match, the Russian would have had a high enough ranking to enter Wimbledon’s main draw. Now she will have to play qualifications, three rounds away from the main draw. At least her victory over Christina McHale of the United States on Monday secured that position.
The FFT’s decision was laced with political implications, too. The International Olympic Committee is still considering which city will host the 2020 Olympics and Paris is a contender. By leaning in with the anti-doping trend, Paris may have raised its profile as a pick to host the games.
“It seems there’s a lot of politics behind this decision,” Justin Gimelstob of Tennis Center said yesterday during its programming of The Italian Open. “It’s probably a safer decision.”
Safe or not, the FFT stuck out its neck, willing to stand up for the players who don’t take illicit drugs. It moved toward integrity and away from cheating. It says that the money budgeted for drug testing has proven positive. And, if negative results are not going to be taken seriously by tennis, why should money be allocated?
“The tournament [French Open] is stronger than the players, and the defense of the interest of the tournament takes priority over the defense of the interests of the players,” Giudicelli said, summing up the FFT’s main point.