Maria Sharapova has been granted a wildcard for next month’s WTA grass-court event in Birmingham, a key Wimbledon warm-up, organisers said Thursday.
It comes two days after the Russian former world number one was refused a wildcard for the French Open following her 15-month ban for doping.
Next month will see 2004 Wimbledon champion Sharapova, 30, play the Birmingham event for the first time in seven years. She is guaranteed a spot in qualifying for Wimbledon but still hopes to get into the main draw for the Grand Slam with a wildcard.
Wimbledon chiefs will wait until June 20, just days ahead of the qualifying event, before deciding whether to give her a wildcard.
“I am really excited to be coming back to Birmingham this year to play on the grass as part of my build-up to Wimbledon and I thank the LTA for this opportunity,” said Sharapova in a statement.
“I have some great memories of playing there over the years, including winning the title on two previous occasions.”
Lawn Tennis Association chief executive Michael Downey accepted “not everyone will agree” with the decision to give Sharapova a wildcard for Birmingham.
Some of her rivals on the women’s tour have openly questioned her return last month from a ban for taking meldonium.
“We have received a two-year commitment from one of the most famous athletes in the world, Maria Sharapova, to play the Aegon Classic Birmingham,” said Downey, after the Russian confirmed she would play there in 2017 and 2018.
“In return we are providing Maria with a main draw wildcard for this year. This wasn’t a decision we took lightly and we recognise not everyone will agree with it, however Maria has served her ban in full and is now back playing high-quality tennis.”
The Birmingham event at the Edgbaston Priory club runs June 17-25, with eight of the world’s top 10 set to take part, including world number one Angelique Kerber. Wimbledon starts on July 3.
Sharapova returned from her doping ban on April 26 but relied on wildcards to get into tournaments because her world ranking points expired while she was banned.
She was initially banned for two years for using meldonium, with the penalty later reduced by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which ruled she was not an intentional doper.
After her ban expired, Sharapova returned to competition at the Stuttgart Open, reaching the semi-finals, and progressed to the last 32 of the Madrid Open, failing to earn a qualifying spot for the French Open, the second Grand Slam of the season, which starts later this month.
Sharapova this week responded to her French Open wildcard snub with a defiant Twitter message, saying: “If this is what it takes to rise up again, then I am in it all the way, everyday.”
Has there ever been a wildcard decision debated as fiercely as the one regarding Maria Sharapova’s entry into the French Open? It’s highly doubtful.
The French Tennis Federation (FFT) announced on Tuesday that the Russian, who returned from a 15-month doping suspension last month, will not receive an invitation to play at Roland Garros – not in qualifying and not in the main draw.
That piece of information was revealed in dramatic fashion by federation president Bernard Giudicelli during a Facebook Live video.
The new head of French tennis sat in front of a camera, waited several minutes to make sure enough people had tuned in, then started by listing the wildcard recipients for the men’s main draw and qualifying rounds, followed by the women’s.
It took him 10 minutes to reveal that Sharapova would not get an invitation, and then went on to say the reason behind his decision was that he has a “mission to protect the sport”.
Naturally Giudicelli’s call, just like Sharapova herself, has been a divisive one.
The FFT president’s decision is being portrayed as a triumph in the supposed fight for the integrity of tennis. But Sharapova’s supporters, including the WTA, have been critical of Giudicelli and his comments during the announcement.
WTA CEO Steve Simon released a statement late on Tuesday saying he did not agree with the FFT’s choice to base their decision on Sharapova’s past.
“There are no grounds for any member of the TADP (Tennis Anti-Doping Program) to penalise any player beyond the sanctions set forth in the final decisions resolving these matters,” said Simon.
I’m not sure why the WTA felt the need to put out a statement when the French Open is an ITF event, run by a federation. Why the urge to run to Sharapova’s defence?
She is capable of releasing a statement herself – she tweeted a brief message yesterday – and it’s not like a great injustice has been done. She has only been back for less than four weeks, she’ll get her ranking up soon enough and will be getting into grand slams – and possibly winning them – on her own merit in no time. Granted, giving her a qualifying wildcard would have been a wise compromise, but not giving it to her is no catastrophe.
Also Simon’s use of the word ‘penalise’ is not really applicable in this case because no player is entitled to a wildcard (unless you won a tournament specifically held to compete for that wildcard), which means not getting one is not a penalty in any way.
Wildcards are given out at the discretion of tournament organisers/owners and while they are often debatable, the whole thing is simply not our call.
It seems the narrative with Sharapova only works in extremes at the moment. People are either vilifying her, or supporting her blindly. There are a lot of grey areas surrounding her case but now that she has completed the ban she was handed by an independent tribunal, can we not all just move on?
The wildcard saga took on a life of its own. It was almost deliberately blown out of proportion to draw more attention to the French Open and we all fell for it.
Their choice of making the announcement via a Facebook Live video is proof that they wanted to make a production out of the situation. The extended prelude was meant to add suspense.
By all means, if drama is the goal, then they have certainly achieved it. But then why hide behind the veil of doing this for the sake of the integrity of the sport?
They’re only giving Sharapova, and her camp, more reason to portray herself as a victim, when in reality, she made a mistake, paid for it, and like the rest of the world, it will take her just a bit of time to bounce back from it.
The 30-year-old Russian has been a fighter her entire life and we can expect nothing less from her right now.
She will need a wildcard if she was to play in the Wimbledon main draw and here’s hoping the All England Club don’t go down the same route as the French Open did by attempting to produce another psychological thriller movie.
A simple statement in an email should suffice! And by the time the US Open comes around, Sharapova will no doubt already be in the top 100 and we’ll hopefully be done with this debate once and for all.
Andy Murray admits his last couple of weeks have been “a struggle” after the world No1 suffered yet another early exit, this time in the Rome second round, but the British star insists he can still have a good run at this month’s French Open (starts May 28).
Murray lost 6-2, 6-4 to home favourite Fabio Fognini in the Italian capital on Tuesday and will head to Roland Garros in 10 days’ time with a mediocre 4-4 win-loss record on clay under his belt this season.
The Scot fell to Albert Ramos-Vinolas in the Monte Carlo third round, before exiting the Barcelona semis against Dominic Thiem, and losing to Borna Coric in the Madrid third round.
His Rome stumble was his latest disappointment in what has been a sub-par 2017 so far for him.
Murray had said after his defeat to Coric last week that he was “concerned” about his performance during the match, in which he failed to change his tactics or find solutions against the young Croat.
“I definitely felt a little bit better than there, but, yeah, still not close to where I would like to be, obviously,” Murray told reporters in Rome, comparing his loss to Fognini to the one against Coric.
“I felt like after Barcelona I would start to play better, and the last two weeks have certainly not been as good as Monte Carlo and Barcelona. Even the match I lost in Monte-Carlo I did actually feel like I played some good tennis. I messed up the match a bit in the third set, but I did actually play some good stuff.
The last couple of weeks has definitely been a struggle, and, you know, a long way from where I’d like to be.”
There has been speculation that perhaps Murray’s incredible second half of 2016, which led to him ending the year as the world No1, may have taken its toll on him, or that perhaps his ascension to the top of the rankings has added extra pressure on him.
The 30-year-old insists that is not the case, and that being world No1 is not the reason he has been struggling to find his top form.
“It really doesn’t, to me. I’m not lying,” Murray assured, when asked whether it felt different at tournaments being the world No1.
“That’s just how I feel. I’m just not playing well, and I don’t think it’s to do with my ranking. I mean, the last couple of weeks, you know, they have been tough and I haven’t played well. I think sort of that Indian Wells and maybe like Monte Carlo, you know, the (elbow) injury and stuff was more understandable.
“But the last few weeks, there is no reason for it from my end. I’m just not playing good tennis, and I need to try and work out how to turn that around. I believe I will. And I need ideally quickly, because there are some pretty important tournaments coming up.
“I still feel like I can do really well in those events. I need to turn it around quick.”
Murray reached the Roland Garros final last season before he went on to win Queens and Wimbledon.
He acknowledged that his movement – usually one of his greatest strengths – has not been up to standard recently, and that is something he needs to figure out.
“I know a lot of people think I have got no chance of doing anything at the French after the last couple of weeks, but, you know, I do think I can,” he added.