Sharapova Denied Wild Card to the French Open

The tennis star’s past doping violation poses a major obstacle to her comeback.

Sharapova plays at a charity tennis tournament in October. (Isaac Brekken / AP)

Tennis pro Maria Sharapova will not be allowed to compete in this year’s French Open on May 28, the president of the French Tennis Federation (FTF), Bernard Giudicelli, announced Tuesday. Last year, Sharapova was banned from the sport for 15 months after testing positive for meldonium, a heart disease drug. April marked the end of the ban and the start of her official return to professional tennis. News that she was denied entry to the French Open surfaced just before Sharapova took the court against Croatian player Mirjana Luci-Baroni in her second match of the Italian Open. Though she maintained a small lead in the third set, Sharapova was forced to withdraw from the competition due to a left thigh injury.

Because of her forced hiatus, Sharapova, once considered the number one female player in the world, now ranks in the low 200s, and cannot automatically qualify for major tournaments like the French Open. She can, however, be allowed to enter professional tournaments on a wild card, which are given out at the discretion of the tournament’s organizers. Wild cards are often extended to formerly high-ranked athletes who are attempting to make a comeback or those who are likely to generate a large crowd.

Since her suspension was lifted, Sharapova has been given three wild cards: one to play in the Italian Open, another to play in the Madrid Open, where she lost in the second round, and a third to play in the Porsche Grand Prix, where she lost in the semifinals. After winning her first match at the Italian Open on Monday, Sharapova can now play in the qualifying event for Wimbledon, which starts in July. If she loses, she might still receive a wild card from Wimbledon organizers, though some speculate that Tuesday’s decision will set an uncomfortable precedent for future tournament organizers.

For the FTF, the decision boiled down to a moral responsibility. “You can get a wild card when you return from injury but you cannot get a wild card when returning from a doping suspension,” Giudicelli said on Tuesday. Many professional tennis players have been similarly adamant that Sharapova should be denied any favors from major tournaments. Kristina Mladenovic, her opponent at the Porsche Grand Prix, accused Sharapova of getting “extra help” with her comeback, while Genie Bouchard, who defeated Sharapova at the Madrid Open, called the tennis star a “cheater” who should be permanently banned from the sport.

Still, the decision to deny Sharapova entry to the French Open is not without controversy. During his announcement on Tuesday, Giudicelli seemed keenly aware of potential backlash from the public. After realizing that “about two-thirds” of people surveyed wanted Sharapova back on the court, Giudicelli said he felt “some pressure” to extend an invitation. Giudicelli also said he tried calling Sharapova multiple times to deliver the news personally, but ended up leaving a voice message after he received no answer. He added: “I appreciate the media impact of Maria. I appreciate the broadcasters’ expectations. But, in conscience, it was not possible to go beyond the anti-doping code and beyond the application of the rules.” With two superstar players—Serena Williams and Roger Federer—sitting the tournament out, ratings are likely a concern for the FTF.

While Sharapova has admitted to making a mistake by taking an unapproved drug, she has frequently insisted that the violation was an oversight. The Court of Arbitration for Sport even reduced her suspension last year from two years to 15 months after ruling that her doping was unintentional. In a March interview with Vogue, Sharapova explained the circumstances from her point of view:

I had been taking [meldonium] for ten years, and for about seven of those years I had gotten a written certificate from a [World Anti-Doping Agency]-accredited lab that all the substances I was taking were totally fine for me to take. I just became completely comfortable that they were fine. That’s the mistake I made: being too comfortable.

In the same interview, Sharapova admitted that patiently awaiting her return to professional tennis was difficult for her. “I have expectations of myself because I know what I’m capable of,” she said, later adding: “There’s no doubt that that resiliency that I built from scratch, it helps you, but it doesn’t mean you’re not vulnerable.”