Keith Strudler: The French Open Rules

May 17, 2017

If you believe the common vernacular that star athletes get everything they want, and no ever says “no” to them, you should talk to tennis star Maria Sharapova. She wouldn’t agree with this at all.

See, all she wants right now is to play in the French Open, one of the sport’s four major tournaments, an event she’s won twice. Or, if she can’t get into the main draw of the tournament, then she’d settle for a spot in the qualifying tournament, where lower ranked athletes play in a mini-tournament before the main event to earn a spot – usually against one of the top ranked players in the world. So, contrary to popular belief, in the case of the French Open, Maria Sharapova did not get what Maria Sharapova wanted. And she will not be playing in the upcoming Open.

Of course, this all happened because Sharapova is recently returned from a 15 month suspension for taking the banned substance meldonium – which used to be legal, but wasn’t beginning in 2016. The original suspension was 24 months, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced it by 9 months, giving her court clearance in April.

Now, even though she can now play, it doesn’t mean she’s able to – at least not the way she used to. That’s not because of her skills, which are probably a little rusty after such a long respite. It’s because she’s now an unranked player, and unranked players don’t get invitations to play in major tennis tournaments. Sparing you the laborious details, tennis players are ranked based on their results over the past year, more or less. And since Sharapova hadn’t played in 15 months, she was ranked about the same as you or I – who, for the record, also couldn’t get into the French Open.

Now, a whole lot of top tournaments have already given Sharapova what they call wildcard entry into their events – I’d imagine to help sell tickets. That’s allowed her to quickly raise her ranking in just a few weeks, as opposed to having to play in the netherworld of second or third tier events, where emerging or struggling players go to climb the ladder. So Sharapova never had to play a bunch of club pros at an event with metal bleachers. Because of that, she did amass enough points to make the qualifying tournament for Wimbledon, where she’ll have to earn her way to opening Monday. Unfortunately for her, she hadn’t earned enough ranking points to make the French. Which meant it was up to French Tennis Federation president Bernard Guidicelli to decide whether to give the former two-time champion special entry into the event.

The answer, was no.

Guidicelli’s rational was fairly simple. She hadn’t earned her way back in, and wildcard entries can be given for return from injuries, but not for returning from doping. That, in a phrase, was his point. The court may have reduced Sharapova’s sentence, but that may not change the court of public opinion, where the former number one tennis player in the world is still considered a cheater by many, including a lot of her fellow competitors. So while the French Open will accept the arbitration court’s decision to play again and Sharapova’s efforts to make the strenuous climb up the rankings, they will not give her preferred entry into their vaunted event, one that athletes achieve the old fashioned way – by earning it.

While Guidicelli and the French Open and anyone else in tennis has every right to operate like this, I’d suggest it’s simplified logic to a far more complex reality. Making Maria Sharapova earn her way into a tennis major can give us all a sense of order and dignity and fairness – the million dollar word in sports. She cheated, others didn’t, and she has to earn her way back by the rules in place. That lets us all sleep at night.

But, might I suggest that Sharapova’s crime, such that it was, is hardly seismic. And certainly, it has no impact on her current performance. She’s good enough to make some noise at a major, at least using history as a guide. And she’s big draw – and given the limited lifespan of any pro athlete, it certainly seems a shame to waste the only real commodity they have, and that’s time. So keeping Maria Sharapova out of the French Open might be the correct thing to do, but I don’t know that it’s the right one – if that makes sense.

So, if you want to watch Maria Sharapova play in a major tennis tournament, and you’ve waited for over 15 months now, you’ll have to wait a little longer – till Wimbledon, assuming she gets through the qualifier event. Until then, you won’t get what you, or probably a lot of sports fans want. Then again, oddly enough, neither will she.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

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