Mailbag: Should Maria Sharapova be given a French Open wildcard?

Thoughts on the debate over whether Maria Sharapova should be handed a French Open wildcard, plus Andy Murray's shot at the career slam and more.
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INDIAN WELLS ­– Some quick questions before Indian Wells kicks off. We’ll try and file periodic dispatches from the desert. The Tennis Channel pregame show starts at 10 a.m. ET, 7 a.m. PT, which leads into match play each day. Onward… 

Hi Jon,You're on the committee that makes decisions pertaining to wild cards at the French Open. Do you give Maria Sharapova a wildcard or not? (My vote: Aye)
Cheers, Sheba

• This was the hot question in Tennistan last week. After Andy Murray came out against Sharapova receiving wildcards, many followed with their own opinions, which were distributed all over the place.

Truthfully, I see it both ways. It looks lousy when a player returning from a doping a suspension is welcomed back so enthusiastically. After her punishment lapses and she’s served her time, should Sharapova be allowed back on the road to recovery? Sure. Should she have that road paved? That’s another matter.

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That Sharapova is playing the Porsche event—that begins while she is still suspended—is especially unfortunate. This whole unfortunate affair was predicated on loopholes and fine print and flexible deadlines; now you’re returning mid-tournament, a move that returns you to the Land of the Ethically Gray?

On the other hand….First, there are, of course, commercial interests. Tournaments, the smaller ones especially, are businesses that rely on stars. When one of the biggest stars is eligible, you do what’s necessary to ensure her services. Once the suspension is over, shouldn't Sharapova treated as any other player?

The majors—and Andy Roddick made this point to Pete Bodo—are another category and don’t have the same business justification. Should they be held to a higher standard? Perhaps. But wild cards are inherently unfair. And much as the U.S. Open gave a lot to former champ Juan del Potro, it seems reasonable that French and Wimbledon would want a former champ in the draw. But one is returning from injury and the other from a doping suspension, you say? True. But, again, Sharapova has served her sentence. A goal of punishment is rehabilitation.

My solution: I realize how terribly naïve this will sound. But here goes. Sharapova is eager—understandably—to restore her ranking, yes, but more important, her reputation and clear her name. What if she said: “I really appreciate the wild cards I have been offered. But when I said that I take ownership of this unfortunate affair, that extends to my return. Rather than accept wild cards—which are kind of unfair and lame to begin with; and which deprive deserving colleagues of spots in the draw—I am going to EARN my way back, the same way I want to EARN back your trust. Yes, I am going though the qualifying draws. I believe in my game. I believe in my fitness. I believe that this is the right way to return. Please come cheer me on and support me and the XXYZ Open!”

Again, I realize this isn’t realistic. Not when the star in question has sponsor commitments. Not when the management company that represents her also runs one of the events dispending wild cards. Not when she is in her 30s and doesn’t have time for a three-digit ranking. But the good will Sharapova would accumulate? It would be immeasurable. Her playing the back courts as she tries to “earn” her way back, would make international news. If reputation restoration is really the goal, this—the equivalent of conceding a point dubiously given to the opponent—would be gold.

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So where do you stand on this, Jon: Murray came out and said he does not want wildcards given out to athletes returning from drugs associated bans, on the other hand there are shades of gray in every issue, aren't there?

Roland Garros came out and said it will not be easy to give Sharapova a wildcard. I personally feel that once you have done the time for the crime, we all need to move on. You do the time and hopefully after that there are no strings or stigma attached. Am I suffering from naiveté here, Jon? She deserves a wild card, as much as anyone else, after 4/26?

Go ahead, call me naive?
Deepak, Seattle

• I include this to stress that reasonable people can disagree. Most of you seem to side with Murray and against Sharapova. But plenty of you—not unreasonably—share Deepak’s view that once April 26 rolls around, Sharapova has served her time and should retain all her rights and privileges.

Sure, Roger Federer has a 202-107 record against guys ranked in the top 10. But what's his career record against guys ranked No. 116? #secondroundknockouts #firstStakhovskyandnowthis

P.S. Thanks so much for your columns. I've read them happily for years!
Eric Lyon

• Federer lost No. 116 Evgeny Donskoy last week. No. 116 was also the ranking of Federer’s former Wimbledon conqueror, Sergiy Stakhovsky. More irony: Denis Istomin, who of course beat Novak Djokovic at the Australian Open was ranked…No. 117.

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I'm sure [Steve] Johnson's team realizes this and he does his best. 16 year-olds playing open level tournaments can tell where their weaknesses are. A top-30 player certainly knows it.Look I'm just a former summer camp instructor and club player, so take this with a grain of salt, but sometimes people just have talent in one area and lack it in another. I put twice as much effort into working on improving my backhand as I do my forehand, and my forehand has remained my main-and-only weapon since I was 12 years old, and my backhand has always been a liability. I'm strongly right side dominant; everything I try to do on the left is tougher. The writer suggests that it's just a matter of focus or perseverance. I'm sure others with more credentials would say the same thing, but in my view, it doesn't work that way.
Reader name misplaced

• I think most of us can relate. Like you, my forehand is incalculably stronger than my backhand, which, I run around at every opportunity. I can spend an entire summer hitting backhands and I know that it’s always going to be my weaker wing. It just is. It’s encouraging—and speaks well of his adaptive skills—that Johnson is able succeed despite the imbalance.

Fun discussion for the hotel bar: which players have the least variance from one wing to the other?

Some questions on Andy Murray. If by the end of his career he can only win either the French or the Australian Open, which do you think he would choose? I know the French is on clay and has more prestige but surely those five final defeats would gnaw at him? As with the other members of the top 4, Murray is very close to completing the Masters Slam. While I know the Slams are the major currency, how big an achievement would you consider it to be? 
Alex, London

• Good one. And better yet, it doesn’t have to be hypothetical. We can ask him this and I suspect he’ll answer.

My guess? The French. Winning on all surfaces means so much. Sure it would be nice to see him finally break through in Australia. But his hardcourt bona fides are well established, given that his first major came in New York, he’s reached the final Melbourne all those years, and one of his Olympic gold medals came on asphalt.

While we’re here: a few years ago, who would have guessed that Stan Wawrinka would be closer to a Career Slam than Murray?

I love the thought of Ken Rosewall playing in Jackson, Mississippi. Is there a better example of the global shift in tennis?I always think about the possibility of mentally and physically combining two tennis players. I always go back to Steve Johnson and Nick Kyrgios. No backhand issues there.

• Underrated point: yes, players today have it easy with their NetJets and their teams and their luxury hotels. But the rigors of today, traveling from Melbourne to Dubai/Acapulco to Indian Wells are much different than the rigors of traveling from Hilton Head to Atlanta to Jackson to New Orleans to Dallas.

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It seems that Djokovic's opponents have figured him out. They've realized that their best chance to beat him is to play first strike high-risk tennis than grind away in long physical rallies. Djokovic looks helpless and is at the mercy of his opponents. Does he need to re-invent his game to play more attacking tennis?

• I agree with your observation that you’re beating Djokovic by playing fearless, high risk/reward tennis, not by slogging through baseline rallies. But I don’t think it took a decade for players to devise that strategy. Djokovic is the current encapsulation of that tennis cliché: “the margins are slim.” Djokovic’s level—and focus and perhaps happiness—slips by that tiniest amount and he’s suddenly beatable.

There seemed to be some confusion over Twitter so I’ll restate: you are NUTS if you write off Djokovic. First, in tennis no player should be “written off,” not when it only takes seven matches to win the biggest prizes. A beauty of the sport: rebuilding processes don’t take years. They only entail winning 21 sets (or 14 if you’re female) over two weeks. And from Serena (in ….always) to Sampras (in 2002) to Federer/Nadal (in January), the great ones show time and again that they are capable of conjuring the magic.

That said: the State of Djokovic is a vital storyline heading to Indian Wells. This ain’t the same player—and this ain’t the same guy—who was a good bet to win all four majors as recently as last June.

I always look forward to your columns, and appreciate your insight and writing style. But I was taken aback reading your reference today to Anna Kournikova as a "pioneeress."  I don't think that's a word, and it doesn't need to be a word.  Adding "ess " to a word that is inclusive of both genders marginalizes the person to whom you are referring.  I find that insulting. I will continue to be a big fan (faness?) of your writing, and hope that this was just a momentary lapse.
Gwin Krouse

• Point taken. What’s the British expression? “Too cute by a half” or something like that. For the record, “pioneeress” comes up on the Google machine, used to describe everyone from Sheryl Sandberg to Molly Brown. But you’re right and I’m wrong. It’s like when Jeopardy has the category “Women authors.” Why the qualifier, especially when they would never have a “male authors” category?

Shot, Miscellany

• Ryan Harrison was the guest on the most recent podcast.

• We’ll have a new guest this week.

• The USTA announced that Jose Higueras will be serving USTA Player Development in a new role beginning in 2017, transitioning from Director of Coaching to Master Coach Consultant, Development and Planning through the end of the year. In the new role, Higueras will oversee training camps for American men and women at the USTA National Campus at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla., the USTA Training Center, West in Carson, Calif., and near his home in Palm Springs, Calif. He will also travel to a number of tournaments to coach and advise top players and will serve as a development and planning resource for the USTA Player Development coaching staff.

• The Intercollegiate Tennis Association announced the creation of a new award that will honor revered college tennis coach and educator, Dr. Ann Lebedeff, as endowed by sports icon, humanitarian, and friend of college tennis and higher education, Billie Jean King.

Watch: Serena Williams surprises and plays against two guys on a court while wearing boots

The ITA Ann Lebedeff Leadership Award will stand to honor a recent college graduate who played college tennis and demonstrated excellence on and off the court, leadership on his or her team, as well as on his or her college campus and in his or her community. The annual recipient of the award will have demonstrated grit (i.e. passion and perseverance towards long-term goals), a commitment to social justice and equality and will have pushed others to be leaders in addition to demonstrating his or her own leadership.

• As of today, the Volvo Car Open will welcome back at least five of its past champions for its 2017 tournament, held April 1-9 at the Volvo Car Stadium in Charleston, SC. Currently in the field are: Venus Williams, 2004 champion, Jelena Jankovic, 2007 champion, Samantha Stosur, 2010 champion, Caroline Wozniacki, 2011 champion, and Andrea Petkovic, 2014 Champion.

• The USTA Foundation, the national charitable organization of the USTA, announced today that it has reached the $25 million mark in total giving to grass-roots tennis and education programs since its inception, including $10 million over the last three years.

• Tennis book alert: Keep an eye out for Douglas Brunt’s keenly observed and provocative third novel Trophy Son, on sale May 30. Set against the backdrop of the professional tennis world, Trophy Sonfollows prodigy Anton Stratis from an isolated childhood of grueling practice under the eye of his overbearing father to his dramatic rise through the competitive world of professional tennis.

• This week’s LLS comes from Megan Fernandez: Ajla Tomljanovic and Edge of 17 actress Hailee Steinfeld: