Michael Pavitt

Tennis legend Martina Navratilova made an intervention in the ongoing controversy surrounding Maria Sharapova's return to tennis last week. She essentially suggested that any controversy should now come to an end.

"I think it's time for the players to lay off Maria," Navratilova said on Twitter. "She made a huge mistake, paid dearly for it, 'done the time' and now let's play ball."

Is Navratilova right? Has the outcry regarding Sharapova's return gone too far now?

Certainly, the debate regarding wildcards has continued to rumble on, and will do so until Sharapova does not require them to enter tournaments. 

Her world ranking is inevitably going to rise now that she has served her 15-month ban for testing positive for meldonium.

On the eve of her return to competition at last month's Porsche Grand Prix - a Women's Tennis Association (WTA) event - my colleague Liam Morgan wrote that players were right to air their grievances

I would suggest that if tournament organisers are prepared to hand wildcards to Sharapova then they are not too concerned with the headlines generated. After all, the controversy draws more attention to their tournaments, with focus on the competition for its duration. They are of course benefiting from Sharapova's high and marketable profile.

In many ways, I agree with Navratilova's sentiment. Sharapova has served the suspension which has been handed out to her and she is entitled to take part in competition as any other player is. Sharapova has also been clearly singled out among the crowd.

For instance, when Serbian tennis player Viktor Troicki received a 12-month suspension after failing to provide a blood sample back in 2013, he received criticism from several of the top men's players. His return was largely met without resistance, however, which is probably due to him having a lower profile than Sharapova does.

Switzerland's Martina Hingis was given a two-year ban after a positive test for a metabolite of cocaine in 2007. Croatia's Marin Cilic served a four-month ban back in 2013 after traces of prohibited glucose supplement nikethamide were found in a urine test.

I do not remember there being significant outrage when Cilic went on to claim the US Open title in 2014 after his return. Neither do I remember any controversy when Hingis returned to tennis and went on to achieve huge success in Grand Slam doubles tournaments. She was even added to the International Tennis Federation (ITF) Hall of Fame.

Imagine Sharapova being added to the Hall of Fame now? There would be petitions set up and an angry mob baying outside the ITF's headquarters with pitchforks.

The latter might be a slight exaggeration, but I do think there has been disparity with the response to Sharapova's comeback when compared to other players who have committed similar offences.

Maybe it is a sign that tennis is growing up and tackling this issue. Players might now be believing that the integrity of the sport is being questioned more than it has been before. Certainly, there has been a push from several of the top players to introduce increased testing in recent years.

The ITF last month revealed that an increase of more than 3,000 tests will be carried out by the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme this year, with the budget to tackle the issue given an increase of over half.

It could be that if Sharapova had committed the same offence a few years ago, the reaction might have been lessened. Who knows?

While I partly agree with Navratilova that the debate should move on, I think it is a positive that players are being vocal about the issue. That is, if they are being accurate with their analysis.

The attention over the last couple of weeks has centered on comments made by Canada''s Eugenie Bouchard, who labelled Sharapova a "cheater".

Comments by Canada's Eugenie Bouchard, right, about the return of Russia's Maria Sharapova from her 15-month drugs ban spiced up their match in the Madrid Open ©Getty Images
Comments by Canada's Eugenie Bouchard, right, about the return of Russia's Maria Sharapova from her 15-month drugs ban spiced up their match in the Madrid Open ©Getty Images

"She's a cheater and I don't think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play again," the 2014 Wimbledon finalist, told TRT World

"I think from the Women's Tennis Association it sends the wrong message to young kids: 'Cheat and we'll welcome you back with open arms'.

"I don't think that's right and she's not someone I can say I look up to any more. It's so unfair to all the other players who do it in the right way and are true."

With the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling last year that Sharapova’s case was "not about an athlete who cheated" and that she was not an "intentional doper", it did feel as though Bouchard's comments had actually undermined the very legitimate criticisms that had been made by players regarding the wildcards.

While Bouchard's comments were somewhat ill-advised, it is refreshing to see a player being that outspoken over doping. Certainly, the Canadian's protestations at Sharapova’s return created huge intrigue when the two players were drawn against each other in the second round of the Madrid Open earlier this month.

I must admit, had there not been the animosity between the pair in the build-up to the match, I probably would not have watched the contest. Billed as a grudge match, it certainly lived up to expectations as Bouchard clearly raised her game from previous months to take on her rival, before going on to win.

If you put the controversy of Sharapova's return from a doping ban to one side, I would argue tennis needs rivalries like this. 

A touch of animosity would certainly help to keep attracting spectators to the sport. Not all players are going to enjoy a close friendship and it would be good to see the establishment of some genuine head-to-head rivalries in the women's game, which have arguably been lacking in recent years.