Tag Archives: French Open

Sharapova should restart at the bottom

Today’s Daily Telegraph features an interview with a female tennis player who served a ban for a positive drug test and made her comeback at the indoor clay event in Stuttgart. No it’s not the one you’re thinking of (I’ll get to her later…).

The player I’m talking about is Barbora Strycova the World number 20 from the Czech Republic. Strycova is a member of the successful Czech Fed Cup team who have won the Fed Cup in five of the last six years. Not as famous as her compatriots Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova she was still an important part of the team and in the last two years she played in the final decisive doubles rubber which clinched the title for the Czechs. 

But she wasn’t always as highly regarded. In 2012 she tested positive for the banned stimulant sibultramine as a result of consuming a dubious weight-loss supplement called Acai Berry Thin. On April 22 2013 she made her comeback in the first qualifying round of Stuttgart (I’ve emphasised​ qualifying quite deliberately) losing to Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. After Stuttgart she played in a humble $25,000 ITF tournament in Wiesbaden Germany which is the lowest level of the women’s professional game. She lost in her first match. She had to qualify for all the Grand Slams – two of them successfully – and play more ITF tournaments. She was given no favours which having served a drug ban she should not have been. But to her credit she grafted and at the end of 2013 she had got back into the World’s top 100.

Four years later, on April 26 2017 another female tennis player will make her comeback from a drugs ban – a fifteen month drugs ban. This is of course Maria Sharapova. Sharapova like Strycova will make her comeback in Stuttgart. But that is where the similarity ends. First of all the tournament starts on April 24 but Sharapova’s ban ends on the 26th. But shamefully Sharapova will be allowed to play in Stuttgart despite this and she will be given the right to start on the 26th – a Wednesday – while players like Strycova who will be playing for the Czech Republic in the USA the week before – have to start on Monday or Tuesday. 

Even worse Sharapova has been given a wildcard straight into the first round of Stuttgart. And not only Stuttgart. She has also been given wildcards into the first round of the Madrid Open and the Rome Masters. Remember Strycova had to start in the qualifying of Stuttgart and play humble ITF events. Why shouldn’t​ Sharapova?  After all she failed a drug test too and her ban was longer than Strycova’s. 

I should stress I’m not blaming the tournaments in question as Sharapova is a draw and the tournaments are out for their own interests. I am blaming the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). This gutless spineless excuse for a governing body should make sure all players are treated equally. If Strycova had to start in the qualifying round of big tournaments and in humble ITF events so should Sharapova. So should anyone who fails a drug test. Now if a player is a victim of a stabbing (like poor Petra Kvitova was before Christmas) or if a player falls pregnant and has a child (as Victoria Azarenka did last year) they are fully entitled to wildcards and having their ranking protected. But a player who failed a drugs test should not be given preferential treatment either to clean players or to other players who failed drug tests. 

Hopefully the Grand Slams behave differently. Sharapova will definitely either have to qualify for the French Open or rely on a wild card. She might have to do likewise for Wimbledon if she has not accumulated around 600 ranking points by May 22. The French Open and Wimbledon must NOT reward a player who failed a drug test. Sharapova is entitled to attempt a comeback. But the French Open and Wimbledon must do what the WTA did not have the guts to do. They must not give her a wildcard. Sharapova and all other drug test failures should be told they must restart at the bottom. Just like Barbora Strycova had to…

Mixed Troubles?

During the Women’s Football World Cup last year I stumbled on a Twitter conversation between Jeremy Smith, Philippa Booth and Elliott Ross of Football’s a Country. Smith had picked a hypothetical combined French male and female team and Ross tweeted the following :

the first mixed world cup is going to be a wonderful thing when* it happens. (Football’s a country. (@futbolsaCountry) June 17 2015).

An outlandish claim by Ross. But it has no chance of happening this side of the year 4000**. Apart from the fact that both FIFA and the law of the UK prohibit it the fact is that people do not want mixed sport or take it seriously – and it is an easy thing to prove.

If mixed sport was ever going to work tennis is the sport it would be most likely to gain credibility in. Men and women play the Grand Slams at the same time, both genders get equal pay for their singles and doubles events and the mixed doubles is part of every grand slam and (since 2012) it has been a part of the Olympic Games. But the fact is that mixed doubles has zero credibility whatsoever.

There are plenty of ways to prove this. A Daily Telegraph article (January 1 2010) is dismissive of mixed doubles claim to be proper sport.  It said that mixed doubles “deserves a “Carry On Lawn Tennis” image, and that it belongs at your local club, not in the professional game” Old champions like Fred Perry (“a form of men’s singles with a woman on either side of the net”) and Bill Tilden (” a completely unbalanced and in many ways uninteresting game”) were totally contemptuous of the event.

Nor do modern players take it seriously. Its easy to forget that Andy Murray was not the first member of his family to win a Wimbledon title. His brother Jamie won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 2007 but did not exactly take the event seriously. He was playing with Jelena Jankovic and the Serb told him that good shots would be rewarded with kisses! Not exactly what you would expect in professional sport!

And when mixed doubles returned to the Olympics in 2012 it had a hostile reception in the UK press – even though the British pair of Andy Murray and Laura Robson won the silver medal. One article said it was unfair that little Laura Robson (who is 5 ft 11 in!) had to play against giant Max Mirnyi (who is 6ft 5in). But she wasn’t playing against him she was playing against him and Victoria Azarenka.

Nor do the four Grand Slams take mixed doubles seriously. Prize money shows this. None of the four Grand Slams pay mixed doubles the same prize money as the single sex doubles. At this years Australian Open – which starts at midnight UK time – the winners of the same sex doubles events will win $ Aus 650,000 while the mixed doubles winners will win $ Aus 150,000. At last year’s French Open the figures were € 450,000 and € 114,000 at last year’s Wimbledon they were £ 340,000 and £ 100,000 and at last year’s US Open they were $ 570,000 and $ 150,000***. Plus the fact that the deciding “set” in the mixed doubles was a “super tiebreak ” (first to ten points) rather than a normal set. Only Wimbledon had the mixed doubles as the best of three sets.

All this proves that the mixed doubles is not taken seriously in tennis. And if mixed sport is not taken seriously in tennis – the sport where women are taken as seriously as men – what chance will it have in a sport like football where women’s participation is often treated with contempt? Ross, Smith and Booth’s idea of a mixed football World Cup is not a bird that is going to fly anytime soon.

* my emphasis.

** Or the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series whichever comes first (sorry Cubs fans!)

**The French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open have not announced their prize money for 2016 yet.