Sharapova to miss French Open, but row has lit up the sport
WTA hits out as Roland Garros denies former champion a wildcard entry
Maria Sharapova is becoming an increasingly divisive presence on the tennis circuit after the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) reacted angrily to the decision to deny her a wildcard entry to the French Open.
The 30-year-old Russian, who last month returned to the sport after a 15-month doping ban, failed to qualify for Roland Garros and was overlooked by organisers when they handed out back-door passes this week.
French Tennis Federation (FFT) chief Bernard Giudicelli said: "There can be a wildcard for the return from injuries; there cannot be a wildcard for the return from doping.
"I'm very sorry for Maria, very sorry for her fans. They might be very disappointed, she might be very disappointed, but it's my responsibility, my mission, to protect the high standards of the game played without any doubt on the result."
His words have gone down well with critics unhappy that Sharapova has returned to the circuit. Russell Fuller of the BBC called it a "brave and principled decision", adding: "How could the public take the sport's anti-doping message seriously if one of the Grand Slams had invited a player who was not ranked high enough because of time served for a doping offence?"
However, not everyone agrees. WTA chief Steve Simon said Sharapova had completed her punishment and was entitled to equal treatment.
"I don't agree with the basis for their decision," he added. "There are no grounds to penalise any player beyond the sanctions set forth in the final decisions resolving these matters."
The whole situation is "unedifying", says Simon Briggs of the Daily Telegraph. "The suspicion this morning can only be that Giudicelli wanted to play the hero… while Simon was looking to curry favour with his biggest active global star."
He adds that the FFT have handed a wildcard to journeyman Constant Lestienne, who was banned last autumn for betting on matches, and offered Sharapova entry to play in an event in Strasbourg next week, undermining Giudicelli's moral stance.
But there is a positive to come out of the discord, says Briggs: "This human drama has lit up the women’s tour.
"After many seasons when the men’s tour has overshadowed the women’s for storylines, Sharapova has single-handedly reversed the flow… As the last month has shown, dramatic tension brings a sport to life."
Creating yet another cliffhanger, Sharapova pulled out of the Italian Open last night, which means she can no longer qualify for the main draw at Wimbledon.
"The All England Club must consider whether to give the doping offender a wild card or make her earn her spot by coming through three matches at the preliminary tournament at Roehampton," says Stuart Fraser of The Times.
The FFT decision "has put pressure on Wimbledon to follow suit", he says.
Tim Henman will announce the decision on 20 June.
Bouchard wins grudge match against 'cheater' Sharapova
In the first big grudge match since her return to tennis following a doping ban, Maria Sharapova lost a thrilling encounter against Eugenie Bouchard.
Bouchard, who once idolised the Russian but has since become a fierce critic and regards her as a "cheater", took less than three hours to gain victory at their second-round match at the Madrid Open, winning 7-5, 2-6, 6-4.
According to the Daily Telegraph, there were "no major signs of animosity" during the match, although it notes the Canadian "jumped up and down" in celebration after converting her second match point.
Australian media saw it rather differently, however. 7Sport claims Bouchard showed Sharapova "ultimate disrespect" by failing to acknowledge a winner that struck the top of the net in the first set.
She "turned her back on Sharapova without so much as a thought to apologise", says the broadcaster.
It adds that after the game, "the players casually shook hands at the net... as Bouchard fixed an intense death stare on her beaten opponent".
Bouchard, ranked 60 in the world, made it clear she was pleased to have won. "I definitely had some extra motivation going into today," she said. "I was actually quite inspired before the match because I had a lot of players coming up to me privately wishing me good luck, players I don't normally speak to, getting a lot of texts from people in the tennis world that were just rooting for me. So I wanted to do it for myself, but also all these people. I really felt support."
Sharapova tried to brush off the defeat, but it may be significant, says Mike Dickson at the Daily Mail.
"Considering the wretched form of Bouchard coming into the event this was a courageous effort. After the semi-final showing of Stuttgart expectations about Sharapova – whose forehand wavered badly under pressure – may have to be recalibrated," he writes.
"Sharapova is now marooned on 250 points with one tournament left before the entry 'cut off' date for Wimbledon. It means that she will need to win a round at next week's Italian Open to guarantee a place in the SW19 qualifying, and to reach the semi-finals there to ensure a place in the main draw.
"Otherwise the authorities at the All England Club will be forced into a decision they desperately wish to avoid, and have to make a call on whether they want to give a helping hand to someone who has just served a doping suspension."
Sharapova has already been handed a wildcard entry to the Aegon Classic in Birmingham next month, but Stuart Fraser of The Times is unimpressed. "Opening the doors and assisting a player who has just served a 15-month suspension for failing a drugs test with a wild card is hardly a message of deterrence for younger players in this country who may be tempted in the future by performance-enhancing substances," he says.
The Lawn Tennis Association has chosen to "welcome Sharapova with open arms and watch the money roll in", he adds. "So much for the guardians of integrity."
Sharapova wins after drugs ban, but few welcome her back
Maria Sharapova has returned to competitive tennis for the first time since her 15-month drugs ban with a 7-5, 6-3 win against Italian Roberta Vinci in Stuttgart, but her comeback has not been welcomed by everyone. Nor is it without controversy.
"Rarely, if ever, had there been this much interest in a practice hit before a first-round match at a tournament where players tune up on clay before the French Open next month," says Jacob Steinberg of The Guardian.
"One of the sport's most famous figures, and by far its most controversial, was back in the sceptical public eye after the rancour that followed her stunning revelation of a failed drug test last year and the troubling sense that even now she feels no shame about meldonium being found in her system."
The 30-year-old, who tested positive for the banned substance at the Australian Open last year, showed signs of rust and was clearly nervous on her return. But her remodelled serve stood her in good stead as she saw off her opponent in straight sets.
"The piercing grunt has not gone away; nor have those ferocious competitive instincts or her natural talent," says Steinberg. But the real intrigue lies off court, with Sharapova's return a divisive issue.
Many players are unhappy that she has been allowed back. Canadian Eugenie Bouchard put it bluntly on Wednesday. "She's a cheater and I don't think a cheater should be allowed to play that sport again." Others including Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska are unhappy about her return. But her agent, Max Eisenbud, has accused her critics of being "journeyman players" who see her as a threat.
"Defiance has been the keynote of Maria Sharapova's response to her doping ban, and it was defiance that characterised her dealings with the media on Wednesday night," says Simon Briggs of the Daily Telegraph. "In a frosty press conference, Sharapova refused to distance herself from the words of her manager."
Stuart Fraser of The Times notes that she "refused to confirm afterwards whether she had found an alternative for meldonium, the prohibited substance she tested positive for last year". After testing positive she claimed she had been prescribed meldonium in 2006 to deal with health issues, such as diabetes.
The next focus will be on whether Sharapova qualifies for the French Open, and if not whether she is awarded a wild card to that tournament and possibly Wimbledon. A decision will be made later this month, says Fraser.
Whatever happens, he says, there will be "no effort by Sharapova to build friendships in the locker room".