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Financial pressure may persuade French Open to give Sharapova a wild card
May 15, 2017 / 7:03 PM / 6 months ago

Financial pressure may persuade French Open to give Sharapova a wild card

LONDON (Reuters) - Tuesday is D-Day for Maria Sharapova as she awaits the announcement of the French Tennis Federation as to whether she will receive a wild card into this year’s French Open.

Tennis - WTA - Rome Open - Christina Michael of U.S. v Maria Sharapova of Russia - Rome, Italy- 15/5/17- Sharapova serves the ball . REUTERS/Tony Gentile

The Russian’s return from a 15-month ban for a doping violation has divided opinion with many players asking whether Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome were right to give her a wild card into their events.

Sharapova reached the semi-finals on her return in Stuttgart last month but did not have enough ranking points to get straight into the main draw in Paris, nor the qualifying event.

As a grand slam event, the French Open is perhaps less in need of extra publicity than a regular Tour event, its sponsorship and advance ticket sales largely unaffected by the presence of an individual player.

However, the Roland Garros tournament, which will announce the decision on Facebook Live at 1900 local time (1700 GMT) on Tuesday, may feel under financial pressure to grant Sharapova a wild card, either for qualifying which starts on May 22 or for the main draw six days later.

As the smallest of the four grand slam venues, Roland Garros has the lowest attendance and generates the least revenue, and a decade-long stalemate over its plans to expand means it faces being left behind as the other slams continue to grow.

French Open revenue was 187.3 million euros ($205 million) in 2015, compared to Wimbledon at 169.7 million pounds ($219 million) and the U.S. Open ($291 million).

Even the Australian Open, long considered the weakest of the four, has caught up in revenue terms, generating the equivalent of 188 million U.S. dollars in 2015 and 207 million in 2016, with a further anticipated rise from this year.

Roland Garros is also lagging behind in terms of facilities. The Australian Open has a roof over three courts while the U.S. Open will have a second roof by 2018 and Wimbledon will add a second one by 2019.

The French Open has none which has an adverse effect on television rights, where the guarantee of play no matter what the weather will boost revenue.

Total prize money for this year’s French Open is 35.98 million euros ($39.46 million), a 12 percent increase on 2016, with the singles champions each receiving 2.1 million euros.

Next month’s Wimbledon has a total prize money pot of 31.6 million pounds ($40.8 million). This year’s Australian Open, which was badly affected by exchange rates, had $37 million and the U.S. Open will dish out a total of $50 million.

OLYMPIC BID COULD BOOST ROLAND GARROS

While the Paris 2016 figure of 413,907 people through the gates is not that far behind Wimbledon (493,928), it is dwarfed by the U.S. Open, which had 691,280 people in 2015, and the Australian Open, which this year had 728,763.

Revenue and attendance figures are likely to go up as each slam expands its facilities but the French capital’s attempts to build into the neighbouring botanical gardens have been hamstrung by red tape.

Until the plans to expand are approved –- and the Paris bid to host the 2024 Olympics could be a key factor in that happening –- facilities at Roland Garros will look forlorn by comparison.

On Monday, the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, said Roland Garros was a key part of the Olympic bid.

“In 2024, Roland Garros will be bigger, more comfortable and more beautiful in order to host five sports including tennis and boxing,” she said on Twitter.

The issue of Sharapova has been a sensitive one.

Bernard Giudicelli, the new president of the French Tennis Federation said in March that it would be difficult to give the former world number one a wild card when it was spending a lot of money on anti-doping.

“It’s complicated. We prefer that she returns completely rehabilitated,” Giudicelli told a French journalist.

“Integrity is one of our strong points. 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.”

Former player Guy Forget, now the French Open tournament director, has been canvassing opinion from within the sport as to what the reaction would be should Sharapova receive a wild card.

Former world number one Martina Navratilova said this month that Sharapova should now be allowed to get on with her tennis and as a two-time champion in Paris could justifiably be given a wild card into the main draw.

With the issue of revenue to consider, however, organisers -- already hit by Monday’s withdrawal of 18-times grand slam champion Roger Federer from the men’s event -- might be canny to give Sharapova a wild card into qualifying.

In 2016, 17,689 people attended qualifying at Roland Garros, compared to 48,894 at the U.S. Open. Add Sharapova to the qualifying event and interest would grow, including from broadcasters who provide most of the revenue.

“I think I’d be prepared to play in the juniors if I had to,“ Sharapova told reporters in Stuttgart last month. ”I think everyone in this room knows what a competitor I am and I don’t take anything for granted and if I get the opportunity to be in a draw then I will take it.”

The French Federation did not respond when asked for comment.

Editing by Clare Fallon

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