It was a dramatic gesture, and one that relieves short-term public relations pressure. But the French Tennis Federation's decision to withhold a Roland Garros wild-card entry from Maria Sharapova puts tennis on the teetering edge of a slope that could be as slippery as the red-dirt courts of Europe, where Sharapova's clay season skidded to a stop after an in-match injury in Rome this week.
Let's be clear: Wild cards are handed out at the discretion of tournament officials. At Grand Slam events, they are generally used to showcase the home country's young talent, along with top players returning from injury or other absences. Sharapova is a two-time Roland Garros champion, but its organizers owed her exactly nothing.
However, the reasons explicitly stated for withholding the freebie into the main draw, or even the qualifying rounds, make this a singular moment. Sharapova's return from a doping suspension instantly politicized the call. Several of her competitors complained long and loudly when three spring tournaments gave her a hall pass, which she was entitled to ask for and they were entitled to give under long-standing WTA rules. (Tournament chiefs were accused of putting economic imperatives first, which, by the way, is their job.)
In a debate in which optics has taken center stage, the inconsistency stands out starkly. If tennis is bent on taking a moral stand, why should Madrid be different than Paris? Then again, if any tennis governing body passed a hard-and-fast rule against granting wild cards to players post-suspension, it might not survive a legal challenge. There's no provision for that extra layer of sanctioning in the World Anti-Doping Agency code that is supposed to harmonize the way sports approach crime and punishment.
In a greater sense, the Sharapova wild-card decision sets a precedent that may create headaches tennis will come to regret, especially if its newly enhanced anti-doping program actually catches more top players.
Sharapova's unforgiving reception by a vocal jury of her peers is quite obviously a function of personal dynamics that few have taken pains to conceal. ESPN analyst Pam Shriver suggested that Sharapova and her agent, Max Eisenbud, did themselves no favors with some recent statements.
So what happens when a more popular locker room presence gets suspended for a tainted supplement, or missed tests, or errant use of cold or pain meds? Will the mob reverse direction and cite humility, honest mistakes and the right to second chances, as has largely been the case in the past?
Like it or not, doping cases aren't all clear-cut. There is often ambiguity in the evidence, and nuance and gradations have to be built into the sanctioning process. A finite suspension is supposed to be just that -- a penalty, not an excommunication. To players casting stones, I'd suggest energy would be better directed toward lobbying WADA during the next code revision process.
Sharapova's actions, the relative gravity of her offense, the lack of data on meldonium's actual performance-enhancing effects, WADA's bungling of the science related to the medication -- all these issues have been parsed ad nauseam. It's not a question of defending her. It's a question of how long she's supposed to do penance after time served. It's a question of whether her contemporaries want the rule of law or the cult of personality, whether beloved or disdained, to take precedence in future cases.
L'affaire Sharapova has dominated postmatch discussions for months now. Even the normally patient Andy Murray told reporters this week he'd had enough of talking about it. I feel him. The reaction and rhetoric has been over the top. Makes you wonder how tennis would react to a high-profile positive test for EPO or steroids, doesn't it? New balls, please.