French Open snub dims the glint of polarising Maria Sharapova

Russian suffered first major blow since drug ban return when she was refused a wildcard

On Tuesday, French Tennis Federation president, Bernard Giudicelli, said Maria Sharapova would not be getting a wildcard entry into the French Open. Photo: Claudio Onorati/EPA

On Tuesday, French Tennis Federation president, Bernard Giudicelli, said Maria Sharapova would not be getting a wildcard entry into the French Open. Photo: Claudio Onorati/EPA

 

Maria Sharapova has had to fight for virtually every point in her tennis career, every break in her curiously combative life, whatever the misguided perception of the Russian as a bird in a gilded cage.

Nothing changed for her on Tuesday night. With the unexpected weight of moral probity falling heavily on her neck, the former world No1 was denied a wildcard of any kind – qualifying tournament or main draw – into the French Open at the end of the month.

This was, in effect, her second punishment for failing a drug test at the 2016 Australian Open. She received 15 months for that. Now she is publicly embarrassed again.

There will be thousands who cry, “Enough!” There will be an equal number, probably, who could not care less. Sharapova’s icy demeanour arouses as much antipathy as her fighting on-court spirit generates admiration, even among her rivals – none fiercer than the absent Serena Williams.

But, as Andy Murray has correctly pointed out whenever asked, she should earn her way back to the mainstream of her sport on merit alone. It is, after all, what she has done most of her life, arriving in America as a gobsmacked child with an ambitious father and little more than an untapped talent for hitting a ball with a racket.

The announcement – overblown, overwrought and overlong – by the eccentric French Tennis Federation president, Bernard Giudicelli, rippled through the game with differing effects. The locker room remains disdainfully indifferent to her situation, and the feeling has long been mutual. Representative of the hostility was the response to the news by the French player Kristina Mladenovic shortly after she had beaten the German Julia Görges in the second round of the Italian Open on Tuesday afternoon.

“I don’t care,” she said. “Doesn’t change anything. What would you want me to say? I don’t care. You’re going to have the news in a couple minutes, I guess. I know what’s gonna happen.”

Did she now? Certainly she was angry to be asked. Unlike Eugenie Bouchard, who could not disguise the venom Sharapova aroused in her. The Canadian called her “a cheater” when the Stuttgart tournament organisers manufactured a convenient wildcard return last month. Bouchard felt deeply that failing a test at the Australian Open for the heart disease drug meldonium made her ineligible for any favours.

That is what so many think: the player who has made more from the women’s game than anyone is too rich and glamorous to defy. She bends people to her will, it is said; on court, her annoying tics when receiving delay the action until she is ready; away from it, she even persuaded one gullible journalist she was going to change her surname to that of the brand of sugar sweets she peddles. Then Bouchard got her revenge in Madrid, winning an enthralling three-setter. It seemed the karmic backlash had started.

As for Sharapova’s millions of fans, often blind to their idol’s faults, they will be crushed, as Giudicelli acknowledged. But, he pleaded, he had no choice. He was the just executioner, protecting the game. But was he? Is he? At a press conference this year, he mouthed in English when pressed about Sharapova’s case: “Andy was right.” Soon afterwards he promised her he would inform her personally of his decision. When asked on Monday if she knew what might happen, Sharapova said bluntly: “No.” Both of them cannot be right.

Described as a “very clever egoist” by those who know him, Giudicelli had emerged from nowhere in February to squeeze into office, by 897 votes to the 831 cast for Jean-Pierre Dartevelle, to replace Jean Gachassin. Was he French tennis’s answer to Emmanuel Macron? Was this the man to drain a swamp? Perhaps he will turn out to be just that. It is too early to say. But he has at least put expediency to one side, declining to fill the commercial gap left by Monday’s withdrawal of Roger Federer with the equally stellar Sharapova, whose twinkle dimmed a little on Tuesday evening.

(Guardian service)

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