Despite the laser-like focus of the tennis world on Indian Wells right now, Maria Sharapova still managed to dominate the headlines going in to the tournament. So it seems only apt that this week’s #SmashTalk focuses on the rights and wrongs of wildcards (oh, and what the heck happened to Andy Murray?).
Vivienne Christie: Karolina Pliskova and Grigor Dimitrov
Paul Moore: Caroline Wozniacki and Rafa Nadal
Leigh Rogers: Karolina Pliskova and Stan Wawrinka
Matt Trollope: Svetlana Kuznetsova and Stan Wawrinka
VC: With all the focus in the star-packed bottom half of the draw, the world No.1 was stunned by a man he’d easily beaten four times before – what a reality check. But let’s not panic yet. Vasek Pospisil, far more talented than his No.129 ranking suggests, had warmed up in qualifying and Murray has never truly thrived in the Californian desert; in 2016, he lost in the third round loss to world No.53 Federico Delbonis. Murray hit the practice court hard after the Pospisil loss and will be extra motivated in Miami.
PM: I think it’s a combination of two things:
1. Murray came up against an opponent with nothing to lose and who had one of those days when he didn’t miss. There’s not a lot that even the best in the world can do in those situations.
2. The Big Four aren’t as dominant as they once were. A few years back there was an assumption they would all reach the semifinals. Now they are fallible and the other players know it.
LR: Was all the talk about the #quarterofdeath a distraction to the world No.1? Or do the Indian Wells conditions just not suit his game? Whatever the question is – the answer is that it was still a very disappointing loss. Sure Pospisil can be dangerous but his exit to unheralded Serb Dusan Lajovic the next round shows Murray really had an off day. Added to his early loss at the Australian Open, there is no doubt Murray is struggling to replicate his near-invincible form in the second half of 2016.
MT: I think the level he was required to produce and maintain over a sustained period last year in order to reel in Djokovic and claim the No.1 ranking has left him drained. He couldn’t afford to put a foot wrong last year or he wouldn’t have ascended the summit, and you can’t keep up that ultra-high level forever. He’s not playing terribly – but he just seems to have lost a little sting and edge. And with that being the context, and against an aggressive opponent like Pospisil who was zoning – that’s when an upset occurs.
VC: It’s hardly even worth the debate on smaller events, who are understandably driven by Sharapova’s commercial appeal. Grand Slams are where the Russian needs to earn her way back. While I understand the temptation to offer a main draw wildcard to a former champion, Sharapova would gain a lot more respect if she made her way there through qualifying – which is where, in my view, wildcards could most fairly be granted at the Slams.
PM: (Full disclosure: I’m a Maria fan). I understand why tournaments like Stuttgart and Rome are giving her wildcards, but they shouldn’t. Let’s call a spade a spade: in any other sport Maria would be pilloried as a drugs cheat (regardless of the severity of her offence). She should be forced to work her way back in to the sport, and not be given multiple ‘shortcuts’ on to the top of the tree. Tennis, however, is almost celebrating her return (view the WTA’s erroneous tweet last week). In many ways, this case suggests that the sport as a whole still doesn’t take doping seriously.
LR: It’s the most contentious issue in tennis right now – and it’s been interesting to hear the differing opinions from the world’s best. Morally it does raise some questions, but I also understand why tournaments such as Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome have offered Sharapova a wildcard when she’s going to draw crowds and sell tickets. If the French Open and Wimbledon decide to offer Sharapova a wildcard too, it should be a qualifying one. Earning a main draw spot through merit is the best way for the Russian to silence the doubters – and as she aims to rebuild her brand and reputation, she should be willing to comeback the hard way.
MT: The WTA tournaments definitely should. Women’s tennis is CRYING out for some big names to take to the court – currently sidelined: Serena, Maria, Vika and Petra, and their collective tally of 32 Slams – and Maria’s return couldn’t come at a better time. Add to the mix the resentment aired by some of her fellow pros about this wildcard situation, and we have a spicy little plotline. However, I don’t think the Grand Slams should. They’re less reliant on star power and trade on their prestige. They should make Maria earn her way into the draw – how bizarre/incredible would it be to see her contest qualifying?!
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