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Stuttgart result does little to settle Maria Sharapova debate

Maria Sharapova was never a player to shrink from opportunity -- not before her recent 15-month suspension for a doping violation and not upon her return to the WTA Tour.

That much was abundantly clear through most of last week in Stuttgart, which is why Sharapova's loss to Kristina Mladenovic in a corker of a three-set match will be a particularly bitter pill for her to swallow.

Had Sharapova won that match, her ranking this week would be inside the top 200. She more than likely would have slipped in and qualified for direct entry in the French Open qualifying event, right under this week's deadline. But the loss leaves her ranked No. 262 and still utterly dependent on the largesse of the French Tennis Federation if she is to appear as a singles player at the major she has won twice.

Thus far, the federation has been coy about which way it's leaning because it has reservations about awarding a wild card to a player coming off a drug violation. The federation will announce its decision in a Facebook Live posting on May 16.

Sharapova has a career Grand Slam but just five majors. The French Open is the only one she has won more than once. Sharapova also has another runner-up and semifinal performance at Roland Garros. It is her favorite as well as her most productive major.

Really, what would be more satisfying for Sharapova than to make a triumphant return at Roland Garros?

In addition to the satisfying optics, a renaissance in Paris also would rub red dirt in the faces of all those critics and detractors, compose the perfect reply to the Eugenie Bouchards and Caroline Wozniackis and Andy Murrays who publicly said that doping offenders ought not receive wild cards. If you've followed Sharapova's career at all, you know she's well aware of the adage, "Revenge is a dish best served cold."

The question lingering in the smoke and haze left by all those Mladenovic service winners is: Will Sharapova even get a chance to prepare that dish?

The French federation's ambivalence toward Sharapova took everyone by surprise, but it was there from the get-go and it has been consistent. "It's going to be complicated," FFT president Bernard Giudicelli told AFP in March. "We cannot decide, on the one hand, to increase the amount of funds we dedicate to the anti-doping battle and, on the other, invite her."

The criticism snowballed. A growing chorus of players stepped forward to criticize tournaments such as Stuttgart and the upcoming Madrid and Rome events for awarding wild cards to Sharapova when she is coming off a suspension for doping rather than coming back from injury or some other legitimate layoff.

Simona Halep, ranked No. 5, was among the most recent to weigh in. She told the media in Stuttgart: "For the kids, for the young players, it is not OK to help with a wild card [for a] player that was banned for doping. It is not about Maria Sharapova here, but it is about all the players that are found doped."

Given the simmering resentment among the players and a large segment of the fan base, it would be understandable for French Open officials to feel additional incentive -- and pressure -- to remain camped on the moral high ground.

Mainly, though, they have always considered it part of their mandate to hold themselves to a higher standard than quotidian ATP or WTA events. Unlike most of those tournaments, the majors aren't for-profit ventures that have to chase the money and stars to survive. The Grand Slams and International Tennis Federation are the self-appointed guardians of the integrity and credibility of the game.

Most people endorse that idea, but some still might not be so keen on French Open officials making such a spectacle of announcing their decision on Sharapova via Facebook Live. After all the controversy and speech-making, is it possible the officials will re-examine their claim to moral authority and find it can accommodate awarding Sharapova a main-draw wild card, just like Stuttgart? It's hard to imagine.

The best outcome for all (but Mladenovic) might have been a Sharapova win at the Stuttgart semi to earn direct entry into the French Open. It would have made a decision to deny her a main-draw wild card more justifiable. A voice from the high ground might call out, "She's in the qualifying; what more does she want?"

French Open officials have an interesting decision to make. Will they give a player coming off a doping suspension a big gift, a little gift or no gift at all?