Down the line: Sharapova's wildcard debate

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Returning soon: Maria Sharapova.

Maria Sharapova is not due to return from her doping suspension until April 26 yet debate over the Russian star’s impending comeback has already taken over many press conferences in the last couple of weeks.

A year ago Sharapova announced she had tested positive for the banned substance meldonium and was later handed a two-year suspension, subsequently reduced to 15 months.

The five-time grand slam champion has already received wildcards for the clay events in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome and is posing a predicament for French Open organisers who must decide whether they will invite her to Roland Garros or not.

The new president of the French tennis federation (FFT) Bernard Giudicelli said Sharapova will meet with him to plead her case before a final decision is made but players have already been weighing in on whether the 29-year-old deserves a wildcard.

Andy Murray told the Times he believes players should “work their way back” upon their return from doping bans rather than receive invitations, Roger Federer was on the fence in his opinion, while Andy Roddick said the situation is different if we’re talking about a small tournament that can benefit from Sharapova’s present or if the event in question is a grand slam.

Nick Kyrgios was quoted by ESPN as saying: “it doesn’t make sense to support people who cheat.”

It’s an interesting debate and you can definitely see both sides of the argument.

On one hand, how can we be calling for stricter anti-doping measures and more funds directed to anti-doping and then expect tournaments to gladly open their doors to athletes who were suspended for taking banned substances?

I’m not against wildcards for Sharapova but it is understandable if tournament directors or fans or other players think that there are other worthy recipients for said wildcards – someone who hasn’t lost their ranking due to a doping ban.

On the other hand, Sharapova has accepted her punishment, has done her time, and won’t get her ranking back unless her first few tournaments grant her wildcards.

I would understand if the French Open invites her, not just because she’s a two-time winner there, but because the deadline for acceptance is before her return date. Wimbledon however is a different story. She will have had some time to gain ranking points and could potentially make it into the qualifying or main draw on her own merit.

Personally, I think it would be amazing if Sharapova played qualies at Roehampton this summer. Granted they would need to step up their security measures and make sure they can accommodate large numbers at a venue that is typically not built for that, but if they can make necessary arrangements, Sharapova earning her place in the main draw via qualifying would probably mean a lot to the fans, and create just such an exciting narrative ahead of Wimbledon.

Besides rife debates over Sharapova, here are some highlights from the week that was in tennis, and a look ahead at Indian Wells.

THUMBS UP

Ashleigh Barty

A tremendous week for the 20-year-old Aussie, who quit tennis and took up cricket before returning to the sport last year, saw her win seven matches in a row in Kuala Lumpur to win her first WTA singles title and break the top-100 for the first time. Barty landed at No92 in the rankings this week and also won the doubles crown in KL with Casey Dellacqua. If you weren’t on it already, it’s time you got on board the Barty train because this is just the beginning for her.

Sombrero Sam: Querrey had a good week in Mexico.

Sombrero Sam: Querrey had a good week in Mexico.

Sam Querrey

Rafael Nadal, Nick Kyrgios, Dominic Thiem, David Goffin and Kyle Edmund – that is one impressive list of scalps Querrey took down en route to the title in Acapulco – his ninth trophy of his career and second at the ATP 500 level. What a week from the American, who has now moved back into the top-30. His current position of No26 is his highest since August 2013.

THUMBS DOWN

Bernard Tomic

The 2016 runner-up pulled out of his opener in Acapulco against Donald Young citing heat exhaustion in 27-degree weather. He returned to the court later in the day to play his doubles match with Paolo Lorenzi. For someone dogged by lack of effort accusations throughout his career, Tomic certainly isn’t helping himself.

Eugenie Bouchard

The Canadian’s promising start to 2017 took a sudden turn for the worse when she stumbled out of the opening round in Acapulco to Ajla Tomljanovic, who was playing her first competitive match in 13 months after struggling with a shoulder injury. Hats off to Tomljanovic, she was truly missed, but you’d also expect better from Bouchard.

TALKING POINTS

Will Djokovic return to form?

Losing to an on-fire Nick Kyrgios can never be considered a bad loss but Novak Djokovic will no doubt head to Indian Wells with some level of uncertainty over his form. The Serb’s last two tour-level outings were a quarter-final defeat to Kyrgios in Acapulco and a second round exit to Denis Istomin at the Australian Open. He has 3000 points to defend in the next two months having won Indian Wells, Miami and Madrid last year, which means the pressure on him will not subside any time soon.

Can Kerber get her season back on track?

The second-ranked Angelique Kerber made some progress by reaching the semi-finals in Dubai, playing some solid tennis en route, but the fact remains that she holds an average 7-5 win-loss record this season. The good news is she’s not defending any points at Indian Wells, so the pressure if off. The bad news is that she hasn’t won a match there since 2013.

French break-up

One of the most successful doubles partnerships in the last couple of seasons has come to an end as Kristina Mladenovic announced she is parting ways with her French compatriot Caroline Garcia. The pair won Roland Garros together last year and also made the 2016 US Open final.

Mladenovic said the reason behind their split is because Garcia wants to focus on her singles but we can’t ignore the comments Mladenovic made after France’s Fed Cup loss to Switzerland last month where she slammed a compatriot’s lack of commitment to the team. She didn’t name Garcia and later said the remarks were about Oceane Dodin but French media believe otherwise.

Mladenovic hasn’t announced her new doubles partner yet but considering Martina Hingis split with Coco Vandeweghe and is only two tournaments into her new tie-up with Chan Yung-Jan, a Mladenovic-Hingis pairing sounds like a fabulous idea. Anyone else agree?

The curious life of a touring tennis player

Spare a thought for Russia’s Evgeny Donskoy who last week upset Roger Federer in Dubai to reach the quarter-finals as a qualifier but is this week back on the Challenger tour, playing a $50k in Zhuhai, while the world’s best players are all at Indian Wells. That must be quite the abrupt switch for Donskoy!

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Middle East Swing: Murray, Svitolina, Pliskova shine

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Murray is the first Brit to win the Dubai crown.

After a near month-long stretch of tennis across the Gulf, Sport360’s Reem Abulleil looks back at the major talking points.

From the best men and women to have shined in both Doha and Dubai to our favourite quotes and shots of the tournaments, we reflect on a busy start to the 2017 tennis season.

CHAMPIONS

DOHA – KAROLINA PLISKOVA

The Czech won four matches in three days in rainy Doha to become the first player to win two WTA titles this season. Ran out of steam in the Dubai but showed she’ll be a force to be reckoned with this season and is already up at No3 in the Road to Singapore leaderboard (RTS).

DUBAI WTA – ELINA SVITOLINA

The Ukrainian finally stepped up from the International-level tournaments to capture her first Premier 5 title by defeating the likes of Angelique Kerber and Caroline Wozniacki en route. Is into the top-10 for the first time in her career and is at No2 in the RTS standings.

DUBAI ATP – ANDY MURRAY

The world No1 extended his lead at the top of the rankings by capturing his first Dubai crown, his first title of the season and 45th career trophy. Survived seven match points against Philipp Kohlschreiber in the quarters and was untroubled from then on.

BEST POINTS

Kerber’s right-handed volley in Dubai quarters

We’re still trying to process the speed at which Kerber sprinted up front after Ana Konjuh’s shot clipped the net, hit a backhand drop shot, then swiftly switched the racquet from her left hand to her right to hit a volley before Konjuh’s lob sailed long. An unforgettable moment from the German lefty during her quarter-final with the Croatian teenager in Dubai.


Murray’s backspin magic

While many would choose his drop shot to save a match point against Kohlschreiber in the Dubai quarters as his best shot of the tournament, I’m personally still amazed by his half volley against Lucas Pouille in the semis at 6-5 in the first set. There was so much backspin on that shot that the only way Pouille could have responded was if he were on the other side of the net.

BEST QUOTES

It was actually my wife’s mum, we were having dinner, and I was, like, This is really irritating. She was, like, Pull your pants down. Show me, it might be shingles. I was, like, Okay. Then the next day got a doctor, and she was right.

– Andy Murray tells us how his mother-in-law diagnosed his shingles.

I’m giving my 100 per cent in tennis, and I’m just focused on this right now. This is consuming my whole life. I just really want this really bad. So I’m going to do whatever it takes.

– Monica Puig is not short on hunger or motivation.

I understand I have a role to play in the whole tennis world. But at the end of the day tennis is bigger than any tennis player.

– Roger Federer talks to Sport360 about his role in the sport.

BMW X6 for gold. X5 for silver. X4 for bronze.

– Ekaterina Makarova tells us Russia’s system for rewarding its Olympic medallists.

On court it’s easy, she’s lefty and I’m right-handed, but still people can’t tell us apart on court. I don’t know what more we can do to help you.

– Karolina Pliskova is surprised how people still can’t tell her apart from her twin sister Kristyna.

BIGGEST UPSETS

Evgeny Donskoy over Roger Federer

Federer lost to a player ranked outside the top-100 on hard courts for the first time since 2000 when he crashed out to Russian world No116 Donskoy in the Dubai second round. The Swiss squandered three match points in the second set and blew a 5-2 lead in the decider and a 5-1 lead in the third-set tiebreak.

Cici Bellis over Agnieszka Radwanska

The 17-year-old 70th-ranked American claimed her first top-10 win with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 triumph over the sixth-ranked Radwanska.

ARAB HIGHLIGHTS

Jabeur lights up Dubai

Tunisian Ons Jabeur qualified into the Dubai main draw for the first time then upset world No22 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the opening round. Her reward is a leap into the world’s top-140 after entering the tournament ranked 171.

Safwat holds his own

Egyptian wildcard Mohamed Safwat gave a respectable performance against Gael Monfils in the first round in Dubai, saving 15 out of 17 break points en route to 6-4, 6-3 defeat to the Frenchman.

BIGGEST FLOP

Stan Wawrinka

The Swiss became the first defending champion to crash out of the Dubai first round since 2008 when he fell in straight sets to Bosnian world No77 Damir Dzumhur.

DESERT HERO

Caroline Wozniacki

The former world No1 reached two finals in two weeks in Doha and Dubai, winning nine of 11 matches, that included wins over tough players like Radwanska, Olympic champion Monica Puig, and Russian teen Daria Kasatkina. She’s up to No14 in the rankings and looks on track to regain her status amongst the game’s elite.

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VIDEO: Djokovic crashes out of Acapulco quarters to Kyrgios

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Memorable first date: Between Djokovic and Kyrgios.

Novak Djokovic could only muster a total of 12 words after his straight-sets defeat to Nick Kyrgios in Acapulco late on Thursday that saw the world No2 crash out at the quarter-finals stage.

Djokovic, who typically plays in Dubai during this week on tour, made a last-minute decision to join the field in Mexico, in an effort to get his season back on track following a shock second-round exit to world No117 Denis Istomin at the Australian Open last month.

Speculation indicated he may have avoided Dubai to rebuild his confidence away from Andy Murray and Roger Federer, who headlined the action here in the Emirates.

But Djokovic was instead handed a tough draw in Acapulco, where he battled past Martin Klizan and Juan Martin del Potro in the opening two rounds before falling to Kyrgios 7-6 (9), 7-5 in what was their first career meeting against each other.
His Dubai draw would have been tamer than that but there’s no point in looking back at what could have been at this point.



Whether Djokovic went to Mexico for a change of scenery, or to avoid his biggest rivals, or any other reason, he certainly leaves there with more question marks about his form than he would have liked.

A very curt Djokovic spoke to the media after his defeat, that saw him suffer just one service break but it came at the worst time, while serving to stay in the match at 5-6 in the second set. Kyrgios broke the top seed at love to secure his 11th career top-10 victory.




Asked how he was feeling after the contest, Djokovic simply said: “Not great.”

Another reporter asked him if got annoyed by Kyrgios at certain points during the match, the Serb replied: “He has a big serve, he deserved to win. Congrats.”

And that was the end of it.

It’s difficult to judge Djokovic’s form based on that defeat to Kyrgios, whose rocket of a serve made him almost unplayable at times during the match, even against one of the best returners in the game.

Kyrgios admits his serve was the key to the victory.

“I think my serve is something I can always rely on,” said the 21-year-old Aussie, who fired 25 aces against Djokovic on Thursday night.

“I think I had a great serving day today. I know against these top guys you need to be able to hold your serve to give yourself your best chance. And I thought today I just competed well, competed for every point, I tried to put as much pressure as I could on his serve, even if I was unsuccessful sometimes, just getting a point here or there.

“I got pretty lucky at the end for the break but I think that was just the pressure of me holding pretty easily and I’m just really happy about getting through.”

Kyrgios is only the second man – alongside fellow Aussie Lleyton Hewitt – to beat Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in his first meeting against each one of them.



He owns a solid 11-17 win-loss record against top-10 opposition. While his commitment to the sport often comes into question and he served a three-week suspension end of last year for tanking a match against Mischa Zverev in Shanghai, Kyrgios rarely fails to turn up against the big guns on the big stage.

“I guess it’s what you dream of as a little kid, playing on these great venues against some of the greatest players in the world. I never really have a problem of getting up for a match like this, it’s more the small tournaments and the smaller matches. I just have to get better every day of finding motivation to come out here and play hard,” concedes the world No17.

Kyrgios was pleased with his focus throughout the one-hour, 47-minute showdown that was played in front of a buoyant crowd that was rallying behind Djokovic.

“I knew the crowd was going to be going for him, he’s a great guy, he’s done a lot of the game, and he’s a great player,” he Kyrgios.

“Of course the crowd is going to go for him, I’m the underdog, and obviously I’m a bit controversial so not many people will like me. That’s fine. I’m not going to change the way I play or who I am. I knew I had a chance to win tonight.”

He faces American Sam Querrey in the semi-finals on Friday while Rafael Nadal and Marin Cilic face-off in the other last-four fixture.



 


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