TENNIS – FORMERLY SUSPENDED PLAYERS WHO DOPED SHOULD NOT RECEIVE WILD CARDS UPON THEIR RETURN

Maria Sharapova returned to tennis last week after serving a 15-month suspension for taking a banned substance in early 2016.

The five-time grand slam champion had tested positive for using meldonium or “Mildronate” at the 2016 Australian Open.  It is a cardiac medication generally prescribed to heart patients to help increase blood flow.  But, because it can improve exercise capacity in athletes, the World Anti-Doping Agency decided to ban it at the start of 2016.

Sharapova maintained that she did not realize meldonium had been added to the banned list at that time and claimed she had been taking it for 10 years because of a magnesium deficiency and family history of diabetes as prescribed by a Russian Olympic doctor.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) tribunal that heard her doping case said it did not accept this medical claim since she had no cardiac diagnosis at the time she got caught using meldonium and had stopped seeing the prescribing doctor since 2013 yet continued taking it without consultation.  As a result, they rendered Sharapova a 2-year ban from playing professionally.

In their decision, they said, “The manner in which the medication was taken, its concealment from the anti-doping authorities, her failure to disclose it even to her own team, and the lack of any medical justification must inevitably lead to the conclusion that she took Mildronate for the purpose of enhancing her performance”.

Late last year, Sharapova took her case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and her sentence was subsequently cut down by 9 months.

Her situation is now fraught with even more controversy as after her suspension ended, her return to competitive play last week was fast-tracked by virtue of a “wild card”.

That is, despite being unranked as a result of not playing for 12 months, Sharapova was not required to qualify or start from scratch to bring her ranking up and be allowed to play.

Instead, she asked for and received a wild card from the promoters of the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart, Germany who then added her to the main draw of this top tier “premier” tournament.

According to WTA Rules, this instant eligibility is permissible even for formerly banned players, if the organization approves it.  For former Grand Slam champions like Sharapova, she has an “unlimited” allotment of wild cards she can use during the season.

Last week about a dozen players from both the ladies’ and men’s tours voiced their concern about this process of letting someone who got caught “cheating” back into competition this way.

One of those players was Alize Cornet, the 41st ranked woman in the world from France.  She said: “I find it shameful that the WTA is promoting a player who tested positive after all. It’s normal that people talk about her, she’s an immense champion, but from there to promoting her return to such an extent … I find that unjust.

She added, “A player who has tested positive should start from scratch like everyone else and win her place back. You shouldn’t roll out the red carpet for her.  Unfortunately, tennis remains a business … but, morally, it’s not good.”

Canadian player Eugenie Bouchard went so far to say about Sharapova’s return via a wild card: “I don’t think that’s right. She’s a cheater and so to me, I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again… It’s so unfair to all the other players who do it the right way and are true.

“I think from the WTA it sends the wrong message to young kids: cheat and we’ll welcome you back with open arms. I don’t think that’s right and [she is] definitely not someone I can say I look up to anymore.”

To me, I understand that Sharapova served her sentence as handed down by the ITF, and I feel she has the right to move forward in her career, even if she “cheated”.

And, I believe that players (and tournaments) have the right to exercise their ability to benefit from the “wild card” system that tennis allows and promotes.

But, something doesn’t feel right about this situation with Sharapova.

Just because a process is in place of accelerating the return of a formerly banned player to help bring money back in to the tour, it doesn’t make it right.

Tennis is a sport that requires extreme physical and mental endurance, probably more than any other sport short of the iron man competition(s).  To be the best, you must grind and scratch and claw your way to the top.

So, it feels disingenuous and wrong that tennis allows a player back via a wild card after a doping scandal, especially one who has been perceived to have cheated for at least a decade.

It not only doesn’t fit the mantra of what it means to be a great tennis player, but it also sends the wrong message and seems unfair to all the others who have gone through the struggle the old-fashioned way.

Yes, Sharapova is a former multiple champion and a high-profile international draw.  But, why should she get a free pass because it helps the business?

Does tennis really want to achieve success this way, on the back(s) of those that engaged in deceit?

I recently read a column on this topic by Chris Chase of FoxSports and he accused those players who have spoken out (or those he said “complained”) as “hypocritical peers funneling jealousy and dislike through a phony naivety about the inner-workings of the sport that makes them rich.”

Chase also indicated that because Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka are now out of the immediate picture due to pregnancies along with Petra Kvitova for an injury, the others see this as an opportunity to “protest” Sharapova’s return as “acts of self-preservation and self-satisfaction, not a desire to save the sport from the perils of PEDs.”

Additionally, he called Sharapova a “locker room outcast” and implied that basically the other players are picking on her and making her out to be a “villain for having the audacity to reap the rewards of her fame and start on the faster track back to the top of the sport”.

Whether or not Chase actually believes his own misguided point of view, the fact is that Sharapova has admitted to taking meldonium for at least a decade prior to it being banned.

Her flimsy excuse that she needed it for health reasons does not carry weight and like the ITF pointed out, she most likely used the drug to enhance her performance.

Per a July 2016 CNN article, meldonium has been used extensively amongst Eastern European athletes for decades.  For Sharapova, she took it before matches, but never declared it on “doping control forms” and tested positive 5 times for it in 2015.  She also used it when undertaking intensive training.  The ITF tribunal had concluded that this is “consistent with an intention to boost her energy levels”.

It also seems ironic that when she started to use meldonium is when she started having real success on tour. (She won Wimbledon 2004; US Open 2006; Aussie Open 2008; French Open 2012, 2014).

So, how should we view these victories since she used a now banned substance during those years?  Did that drug help her to achieve success over others and give her an advantage?

We’ll never know the answers to those questions.  But, by giving a disgraced player like her who doped a quick entry to the front of the line spits in the face of sportsmanship and that is why Sharapova’s peers are upset, not because they are jealous and seek to eliminate her as a competitor for their own purposes.

And, it upsets me too, as a fan.  I love to watch tennis and I revere those who fight through the physical and mental disadvantages they have.  So, it annoys me that tennis continues to view Sharapova as a point of prosperity for achievements gained unfairly.

Also, Chase is correct when he alluded to the fact that other sports like baseball and football take back disgraced athletes after their penances have been served.  However, they don’t then allow these same athletes to get special privileges upon their return. And, that’s what tennis is doing with these wild cards being handed to people like Sharapova.

I’m not saying that she shouldn’t be allowed back in the sport.  But, Sharapova should have to start from scratch and work hard to come back and prove herself.

I wish tennis would look past the dollar signs and change their wild card policy to dis-include formerly suspended players for doping.

It’s the only fair thing to do, and it’s the right thing to do.

 

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