Well, this is a post I never wanted to or thought I would write. Maria Sharapova announced Monday that she failed a drug test at the Australian Open in January and that she would be suspended on March 12th with the length to be determined by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). There has been so much info thrown out there on this, not all of it is true. So, I have to chime in. I am not an insider of any kind, but I am taking this story very seriously. I have done my homework, unlike a lot of other folks. As I have discussed before, Sharapova is my favorite player and somewhat of a role model to me. I will do my best not to let that slant this piece in any way.
Here are the things no one disputes. There are not many. Sharapova tested positive for meldonium. The drug helps with chest pain, low magnesium levels, frequent flu symptoms, and diabetes precursors. Those were Sharapova’s reasons for taking it. However, it can also increase stamina and endurance. Thus, it was added to World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned substance list on January 1. Meaning it was legal prior to that. That is key here.
To her credit, Sharapova took full responsibility for the failed test. In that way, she is different from every other athlete ever busted. Her explanation was mystifying yet plausible. She said she had taken the drug since 2006 for the health issues above. A fact confirmed by Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) officials. Sharapova declared that she was taking the drug before each test prior to this year. This is where it gets unbelievable. Sharapova said received an e-mail with the updated banned substance list at the start of the year, but did not bother to read it. That excuse is so pathetic it must be true. Apparently, Sharapova is not the only one who missed the e-mail. Several other eastern European athletes have be nabbed for the same drug in recent days. The drug is not FDA approved and is only made in Russia in Latvia, more info here: http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2016/03/08/russian-athletes-meldonium-drug-elistratov-kulizhnikov-markin-lovchev/81478876/
Where Sharapova is concerned though, there is one nagging question for me. How can a woman who, by her own admission, is smart enough to remove labels from products to avoid endorsement conflicts not bother to read an e-mail with something as important as the updated banned substance list? I have no answer there and neither does Sharapova, other than saying she “made a huge mistake.” She sure did. Predictably, some folks have been quick to bury the Russian Ice Queen. The most common argument from her detractors is that the treatment course for the drug is 4-6 weeks, not the 10 years that Sharapova has been taking it. This is factual, but irrelevant. The drug was only banned January 1.
So, what does this all mean going forward? Good hell what a complicated question. First, there is a possible suspension looming. The tennis governing bodies mandate a four year ban for intentionally failed test, a two year ban for an unintentional failure, and lesser penalties for mitigating circumstances. A case can be made for all three of these. Sharapova and her lawyer John Haggerty will obviously push for mitigating circumstances and are negotiating with the ITF. A lengthy ban may be a career ender for the oft injured Russian who turns 29 next month, but there may be no ban at all. Only time will tell. Sharapova will sell her soul to play at the Olympics the summer. They are likely her last chance at the gold medal she does not have yet.
There is also a financial/business piece to this. Sharapova is the highest earning female athlete on the planet. Most of that comes from endorsements. Contrary to what has been reported, no company has dropped Sharapova yet. Nike and Porsche have suspended their relationship with Sharapova to wait and see how this plays out. Tag Heuer simply decided not to renew her contract which expired in January. Samsung and Evian have not made a move yet. All these endorsements could come back. Again, it all comes down to the punishment. Sharapova is of no use to these companies if she is not playing tennis. Interestingly, Sharapova’s racquet company, Head, announced an extension with her today. At the end of the day though, the money is already in the bank. Thus, it is reasonable to speculate the endorsements are somewhere down the list of Sharapova’s concerns. No matter what happens, she is not going broke.
The fascinating part of this though is who we are talking about, what she means to the sport, and what it means to her. We are talking about woman who broke in the gym to work out at 3 a.m. during the 2009 Australian Open. She missed the event with a torn rotator cuff and could not handle watching on television. Given that level of commitment, the fact that she left herself open to this kind of thing really is unbelievable. Also, Sharapova and Serena Williams are the only two players the WTA and ITF can count on to sell tickets everywhere they go. The new generation has not stepped up yet. Should Sharapova be treated differently because of this? No, will she be? I am willing to bet so.
If and when Sharapova returns, she will likely be painted as the villain, a role she will no doubt embrace. She makes no secret about the fact that she is not friendly with the other women on the tour. In her own words, she has never been “part of the rat pack.” All she wants to do is win and hold big trophies. Good or bad, she has never given a damn what the rest of the world thinks. If the Nike sponsorship does not come back, she will play in a potato sack and look stunning doing it. She loves the game that much.
The suspension will be handed down Saturday. Sharapova should absolutely be punished. Based on what I know, a four month ban and hefty fine seems sufficient. Unfortunately, Sharapova is very aware that far worse is a real possibility. I will leave you with this. Sharapova is the fiercest competitor the sport has ever seen. If given the chance, she will come back as strong and driven as ever.