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  • Maria Sharapova returns to tennis on Wednesday, but the circumstances have left a blemish on the sport of tennis. Here's why.
By Jon Wertheim
April 26, 2017

Some quick orders of business:

Here’s a piece we put together on Serena’s pregnancy announcement last week.

• The most recent SI/Tennis Channel podcast was with Paul Annacone. The Federer-philes in particular will enjoy this.

• Tomorrow we’ll post the next podcast, a fun conversation with Marcus Willis who stole the first week of Wimbledon 2016.

• A lot of you wrote in with more tennis “What Ifs.” This is a fun thought exercise and one that we will continue. But still more of you wrote expressing both support and criticism of Maria Sharapova and her wild card return. Inasmuch as this column is intended to be a public forum, let’s start here:

A few months ago, I assessed the 2017 Australian Open and argued that it represented everything right and virtuous about tennis. There was certain sporting tolerance and accommodation: young and old; men and women; battles of attrition and master classes. There were random acts of sportsmanship and precious little controversy and what you might call xenophilia. It was fitting that the two finals featured two mold-breaking sisters deep in their 30s, and Federer and Nadal—the rare rivalry that dares fans to root for both sides.

This Sharapova story is everything shabby and unbecoming about tennis. Grudges and petty backbiting and commerce and conflicts and stagecraft and solipsism and loopholes. The whole situation is just so, undignified, so well….unseemly. What do we mean?

It’s unseemly that so many fans are still out for blood. (Hell, Sharapova served 15 months—or 10% of a career—for a first time offense. She did her time and paid her price; let her play now.)

It’s unseemly that the science on meldonium remains so incomplete, yet it’s on the banned list. (What evidence is there that it enhances performance outside of the fact that it “was once given to Russian soldiers”?) That said, it’s unseemly that Sharapova never listed her use of meldonium on assorted WTA forms. (This despite claiming she needed it for a series of serious conditions and later claiming that her use coincided with competition.)

It’s unseemly that other players have condemned Sharapova by citing her “iciness” and “frostiness.” (As though her congeniality rating is any way relevant.)

It's unseemly that Sharapova is making her awkward midweek return at an event sponsored by one of her personal endorsees.

Tennis
Decision on Sharapova's French Open wild card set for May 16

It's unseemly that she took a wild card at all, rather than earning her way back, a move that would have done her wonders in the court of public opinion— at a time when she needs reputational reupholstery. (“I was offered a wild card but I want to earn my way back. I believe in my abilities and, besides, getting the concierge service after coming off a punishment like mine doesn’t send a message that I endorse,” would have been such a strong show of good faith and, cynically, pr gold.)

It’s unseemly that her agent departed from the high road, dismissing players—one a former No. 1, the other a former No. 2—as “journeymen….who have never won a Slam.” (By this "logic" Ilie Nastaste has the right to an opinion; Todd Martin does not.)

It’s unseemly that this comeback from a doping suspension has been so “on message” and orchestrated. (Deadspin pretty much nails it here.)

It’s unseemly that Sharapova is unfairly branded as a serial cheater when her real crime was administrative sloppiness. (Read paragraph 100 here. And let’s be clear for once and for all: until Jan 1, 2016, meldonium was not banned.)

It’s unseemly that Sharapova has shown such a deficit of contrition. (One particularly unpleasant trope: “I don’t care what my peers think.” Compare this to so many other players—the obligatory Federer/Nadal reference goes here—who speak so often and so openly about how profoundly they value the esteem of their colleagues.)

As a tennis score: Ick d. dignity 6-0, 6-0.

I write this on a Tuesday night, so who knows how this “comeback” will turn out. But you hope that some alchemy of time and winning will blunt this whole unpleasant episode. The hysterics will pipe down. With detachment, Sharapova will perhaps show some humility. The WTA’s current star vacuum will fill—either because Sharapova is back to playing top-shelf tennis or someone else steps up. Then we can all move on to more decorous topics. Like Fed Cup.

Tennis
Mailbag: Ultimate tennis "What If?" questions

Mailbag

Have a question or comment for Jon? Email him at jon_wertheim@yahoo.com or tweet him @jon_wertheim.

I’m blown away by Nastase’s tirade today and his behavior this weekend. Any chance we can throw the bum out of Hall of Fame? Assuming he got in somehow.
Keith Jacobson, Aberdeen, S.D.

• L’Affaire Maria is deeply regrettable. But I do think that it brings up some interesting philosophical issues both small (should events give wild cards to players coming off doping bans?) and large (should we believe in retributive justice?) Reasonable people can—and do—disagree.

On Nastase, this conduct was so wildly beyond the pale there can be no argument or defense. You cannot bring up cultural relativism or political correctness or “Ilie being Ilie.” This is a disgusting, vulgar cretin who should be drummed out of the sport.

Tennis
Serena Williams responds to Ilie Nastase's alleged racist comment about her unborn baby

I wasn’t around but maybe in the 1970s, when you’re a Grand Slam champ and our sensitivity was lower, you can get away with calling Arthur Ashe “negroni” and the like. In 2017, when you’re a 70-year-old ogre calling a player a half-century younger a “f---ing bitch” and making racist cracks about Serena’s pregnancy, you, sir, have surrendered your boarding pass. Good riddance.

As for the Hall of Fame eviction notice, we create the most slippery of slopes when we start booting enshrinenees from the Hall of Fame. In the most serious case—i.e. longstanding sexual abuse committed by Bob Hewitt—it might be warranted, but still creates precedent. I’m not sure Nastase’s bill of particulars should bring his eligibility into question. But if he were informally exiled from tennis—“General McArthur, you’re relieved of your command”—he would not be much missed.

Serena is officially pregnant, Sharapova is just coming back, Muguruza has been hot and cold since last year, Kerber and the rest of the top 16 (with the exception of former champion Kuznetsova) hardly scream clay court specialists. What are the chances with her now in striking distance of the main draw, that Schiavone closes out her Roland Garros career with a second title? The field has never seemed more wide open!
Bob Richter, Green Bay

• “The field has never been more wide open” has become the 2017 version of “the field has never been older.”

Quick aside: at the French Open last year, organizers had prepared a ceremony honoring Schiavone’s retirement. Which was a nice gesture, save one small detail. She wasn’t actually retiring. Schiavone turns 37 this summer and she has announced that this will be her last year. Then again, she won the Bogota title a few weeks ago. So who knows?

Jon, would you happen to know if there has ever been a year where the first Grand Slam and first three Masters 1000's have gone by, without either No. 1 or No. 2 in the world having reached a final in the Grand Slam and Masters 1000? Yes, I know they met in Dubai, but I am asking only on Grand Slams and Masters 1000's.
Kreits

• Thus spoke Sharko: this is the third time since 1990 (when ATP Masters 1000 concept began) the No. 1 and 2 ranked players did not reach a final in first Big Four tournaments. The number below listed is the highest ranked player in the first Big Four tournaments for each year:

No. 1 or 2 ranked players not reaching a Final in First Four Big Tourn.

2017

Federer d. Nadal               
Federer d. Wawrinka (3)    
Federer d. Nadal          
Nadal d. Ramos-Vinolas 

1999

Kafelnikov d. Enqvist        
Philippousis d. Moya (4) 
Krajicek d. Grosjean     
Kuerten d. Rios     

1998

Korda d. Rios                      
Rios d. Rusedski                 
Rios (3) d. Agassi          
Moya d. Pioline

Tennis
Serena Williams says she made pregnancy news public by accident

What if Oscar Robertson had become a professional tennis player? (Seems a fair question in a world where one of the what ifs posits Nadal choosing soccer over tennis.)
Mary B.

• Here’s why else it's a fair question: Oscar Robertson is a knowledgeable tennis fan who once held a charity pro-am tournament. (When I have more time, remind me to tell you guys my Oscar Robertson story.)

Your broader question is not only a good one but one that should keep the USTA folks up at night: what if the sport did a better job of finding young athletes and converting them to this sport?

Regarding “what if” questions in tennis, here’s one that I think is particularly interesting to ponder: What if John McEnroe had not choked that 1984 French Open final away to Ivan Lendl? For all of Mac’s mastery that year, that is arguably the one thing he’s most known for, and, every time I watch that match, I still can’t help but think he’ll somehow pull it out in the fourth set, but then…(oh, that forehand pass catching the top of the net cord…). I find this hypothetical intriguing because it begs discussion regarding the ultimate timelines (and GOAT-debate placement) for both of them. Would John have played (and won) the ’84 Australian? Would Ivan have ever won any majors (and, if not, how many more might John have won)? Your thoughts?
Sean White, San Diego, Calif.

• What? John McEnroe lost the 1984 French Open final to Lendl? Why has he never mentioned it on a broadcast? (That was a joke.)

To Sean’s point, check out this year McEnroe turned in.

Tennis
Beyond the Baseline Podcast: Paul Annacone

Just heard a question about this on 'Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!' — and Faith Salie knew the answer!
—Helen of Philly

• And, go home everyone. Thanks for playing. But Francis Tiafoe has our Quote of the Year award sewn up in April. Good to see all those hours listening to Kevin Hart and Chappelle paid off.

I read that What-if as: What if Andy Murray had been born 10 years before (or after) Novak Djokovic instead of just a week.
D. Ohlesen

• Ah, got it. We could say this about all sorts of players, no? If Roger Federer hadn’t been a contemporary, does Andy Roddick win three Wimbledons?

"Let's put this famously vulgar/intolerant/sexist 70-year-old in a Fed Cup leadership role. What could possibly go wrong?" Hmmm, at least the Romanians didn't elect him as a President unlike....well nevermind.
N. Neena

• You mean Justin Trudeau? He’s only 45.

Tennis
Serena Williams pens heartfelt message for her baby after reclaiming No. 1 ranking

Congratulations of Captain Kathy Rinaldi and the U.S. Fed Cup Team who are into the finals in November against Belarus­—strong work especially by Coco Vandeweghe and Bethany Mattek-Sands. If all players are healthy and able come November, this tie could be highlighted by Serena Williams versus Victoria Azarenka match up. Would that be the Mother of All Battles (MOAB) or the Battle of All Mothers (BOAM)? Just keep Ilie Nastase away.
Ken Wells, Gardiner, Maine

• I don’t want to pick on Ken. But are we prepared for the onslaught of baby jokes, puns and double entendres that await? My favorite: one of you wondered whether Serena didn’t win the Canadian doubles championship at the 2017 Australian Open.

Shots, Miscellany

• I have seen the third issue of “Racquet” Magazine and it is gorgeous.

• Racket clap to Tom Gullikson, who is retiring from the USTA Player Development group. One of the good guys who—provided he’s willing—would be an excellent coach for Nick Kyrgios.

“It's been a great run,” Gullikson said. “Tennis has been a real labor of love for me. I've never really considered it a job, either the playing or the coaching, because it's something I've loved since I hit my very first ball at 5 years old with my brother Tim on the public courts of La Crosse, Wisconsin. I think tennis is in my DNA, and certainly American tennis is always going to be a part of who I am and what I've been. I'm really excited about the future of American tennis, both on the men's and women's sides. I think we've got a lot of great young players, and we've got some great leadership with Martin Blackman and Brian Boland, so I think tennis is in good shape right now in the U.S., and we're only going to get better.”

• Strong work by Nick Pachelli covering this Cuban tennis delegation I was lucky to be part of.

• Press releasing: The Roland Garros Wild Card Challenge continued into its second week with teenager Amanda Anisimova and Tennys Sandgren staying at the top of the leaderboard. Anisimova, 15, reached her second consecutive USTA Pro Circuit singles final this past weekend at the $60,000 event in Dothan, Ala., earning 48 points. The week prior, she also advanced to the final of the $80,000 USTA Pro Circuit event in Indian Harbour Beach, Fla., to earn 70 ranking points.

Tennis
Tennis players congratulate Serena Williams on pregnancy

Sandgren reached the final of the $100,000 USTA Pro Circuit Challenger in Sarasota, Fla., yesterday to claim 55 points, falling to fellow American Frances Tiafoe in the final (Tiafoe already received direct entry into the French Open). The week prior, Sandgren also qualified for the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston to earn 12 points.

• Press releasing: The USTA today announced that it has hired industry veteran Paul Maya as its new Chief Technology Officer. Maya will report to USTA Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Gordon Smith and will work out of the White Plains office.

• Tech giant Intel has scored a “Serena Slam” of its own. The company on April 30 will introduce a TV spot featuring tennis star Serena Williams, winner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles. Williams is the fourth top athlete to appear in the company’s humorous ads, joining Olympian Michael Phelps, the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James.

• This week’s reader rant comes from W.G. of the U.K.: In the U.K., it's actually worse than your correspondent "Anne" suggested. Here, the only way you can see WTA streaming is to sign up for BT Sport. That doesn't sound so bad until you realize that the only way you can sign up for BT Sport is to be a subscriber to BT broadband. So: I'm supposed to *change my ISP* in order to view WTA matches?

In my opinion, and I've written about this many times elsewhere, this is a clear anti-trust issue, in which the owners of the pipes are getting to control access to content...but I digress. But given that there are five major consumer ISPs in the U.K., and although BT has the largest single audience—see the handy pie chart on this page—it only has a little over a third of the UK's broadband subscribers! Whereas *every* broadband subscriber can access TennisTV. Talk about limiting your audience...

It's a terrible move. IIRC, you were not impressed with the original move off Eurosport. I thought the WTA then was probably doing the right thing because streaming, particularly for the younger generation, is the future of a lot of video consumption (as Netflix recognized years ago), and while Eurosport was often very good about showing extensive coverage of tournaments' early rounds, the competition for channel time on weekends was such that the finals and semis were often reduced to an hour of highlights somewhere weird in the schedule after the matches had finished. And in general they didn't show doubles. I have various quibbles with the way TennisTV does things, but as a joint WTA-ATP service it was really good value. As an ATP-only service...much less interesting to me, as some of your other fans have observed.

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