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French Open chiefs unsure of giving Maria Sharapova wildcard

Sharapova's 15-month ban ends on the 26th of April, 2017.

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 10:  Tennis player Maria Sharapova stands on the court during the World TeamTennis Smash Hits charity tennis event benefiting the Elton John AIDS Foundation at Caesars Palace on October 10, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Sharapova will return to tennis in Stuttgart this April after serving out a 15-month ban

What’s the Story?

Organizers at the clay-court French Open have said they are not sure if they will give former World No. 1 Maria Sharapova a wildcard to the tournament following her return from her shortened 15-month ban for the use of meldonium. 

Sharapova is a two-time French Open champion, winning the title in 2012 and 2014. 

Bernard Giudicelli, the President of the French Tennis Federation, has said that the possibility of presenting Sharapova a wildcard would raise a “moral dilemma” given the extensive work the organization has done to work against doping in the sport. 

"Integrity is one of our strong points. We cannot decide, on the one hand, to increase the amount of funds we dedicate to the anti-doping battle and, on the other, invite her," he said.

Read More: What is meldonium and how did Sharapova use it? 

...In Case You Didn’t Know

In early 2016, Sharapova revealed in a press conference in Los Angeles, California that she had tested positive for meldonium, a drug which is on the list of banned substances by WADA, or the World Anti-Doping Agency. She said she had tested positive for the substance after her match against Serena Williams at the 2016 Australian Open, but alleged she had been using it for a decade to cope with a pre-existing medical condition. 

After facing a possible ban of four years, Sharapova appealed her two year ban, which was commuted following that appeal to 15 months. She has already received a wildcard to the Porsche Tennis Championships in Stuttgart, Germany, which will begin on April 26th this year, the exact day that her meldonium ban ends. 

Heart of the Matter

Sharapova reignited a heated debate in tennis last year when she revealed she had tested positive for the banned substance meldonium, which is not permitted by WADA standards. Having tested positive, Sharapova addressed the issue in a press conference, but said she aimed to make a quick return to the sport. 

Citing a medical need for the medication due to “a family history of diabetes and deficiency,” Sharapova said she had taken meldonium only for therapeutic use. 

But meldonium comes with a murky past, one that led to it being added to WADA’s list of banned substances at the end of 2015. The drug dilates blood vessels and increases the the taker’s stamina, and was proven in studies to carry more oxygen to muscle tissue, hastening athletes’ recovery times. 

The Russian ace said she had been taking the drug since 2006, but meldonium – or mildronate – was only placed on the list of banned substances in 2015, after WADA uncovered “evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance.”

What’s Next? 

A wildcard is the only likely way Sharapova could play at the French Open at all. The 29-year-old is on a suspended ranking until the end of her ban, meaning that she will have to win the title at Stuttgart to win enough ranking points to play at the qualifiers. 

The five-time Major winner, who has struggled with a number of shoulder injuries over the years, will look to make a full-fledged comeback at Stuttgart, the home tournament of current Wordl No. 1 Angelique Kerber, who is also the reigning champion there. 

Sharapova last made a Grand Slam final at the 2015 Australian Open, losing to Serena Williams. The Russian has had a number of comebacks over the years after rehabilitation for her injuries, but the otherwise feted athlete has seen a mixed reaction from fans and tennis watchers since her ban was announced. 

Sportskeeda’s Take 

Not everybody has agreed to Sharapova being handed a wildcard even for Stuttgart, and they’re not mistaken. It’s easy to see how the move could be misconstrued as tacit celebration of a player who has returned from serving a ban, or soft treatment in that regard. 

A number of pundits and players have called for stricter treatment of Sharapova, likening her increasing likelihood of wildcards to tournaments to a hero’s welcome back to a sport after a move that may normally have seen another player maligned or shunned. 

There is no denying Sharapova is a talented player who has worked to overcome a number of obstacles over her career, but this one in particular comes with far darker connotations than her image has been used to. 

The voices behind those complaints are not small fry either – among those calling for stricter treatment is World No. 1 Andy Murray, who has, in my opinion, fairly said Sharapova should have to work her way up from the top like other players on tour, while others, such as Murray’s namesake and also a former No. 1, Andy Roddick, saying the issue was not as cut-and-dry. 

"It's two different issues -- the issue of morality and how you view it, and the issue of business," he told ESPN, and indeed, Sharapova’s presence at Roland Garros might bolster ticket sales. 

The Federation’s final decision is still pending. 

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