It was news that nobody could have seen coming. Many journalists arrived at Maria Sharapova’s pre-arranged press conference in Los Angeles on Monday night expecting news that she would be taking a break from tennis to heal her persistent injuries, or perhaps announcing her retirement from the sport.
What came was unforeseen and unbelievable. It might still be a break from the sport, but not in the circumstances many thought it might be. The five times Grand Slam champion announced that she failed a drugs test at the Australian Open back in January, sending shockwaves through the sporting world.
And, by all accounts, a ‘school-boy’ error may have tarnished the career of one of sport’s global superstars. She did not open the email which stated that meldonium, a medicine the Russian has been taking for health reasons for 10 years, had become a banned substance from the start of the year.
“For an experienced professional, she showed surprising naivety”
Many people have responded saying that Sharapova is meticulous in preparation and the model professional – she wouldn’t leave any stone unturned. This makes it even more unfathomable that the world number seven, a household name ever since her incredible Wimbledon triumph 12 years ago at the age of 17, would not complete the simple task of clicking on the link with the updated list of banned substances.
For an experienced professional, who has been at the top of the sport for over a decade, she showed surprising naivety; a naivety that could taint her career. This stunning admission follows allegations of match-fixing, which came to head prior to the Australian Open back in January. It has been a tough few months for the sport.
“This will overshadow one of the calendar’s best and most-watched events, at a time where women’s tennis seemed at one of its healthiest states in many a year”
Specifically, this will hit women’s tennis hard. Sharapova is, probably only behind the world number one Serena Williams, the most marketable player on the women’s tour. She is the highest earning female athlete, and has been for the last 11 years, according to the Forbes rich list.
She is an asset to the women’s game and now, with the tournament in Indian Wells starting this week, the talk will not be about the tennis, but about Sharapova and doping. It will overshadow one of the calendar’s best and most-watched events, at a time where women’s tennis seemed at one of its healthiest states in many a year.
Its popularity appeared to be rising, the standard no doubt increasing, and fairytale Grand Slam triumphs for Flavia Pennetta in New York and Angelique Kerber in Melbourne suggested that it not just all about Serena. For now the focus will be on the repercussions for Sharapova.
“Nike were particularly quick to act, ironic really given that they still endorse sprinter Justin Gatlin, who has twice been tested positive for a prohibited substance”
Although this was only announced on Monday, Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche have already suspended relations with the Russian. By the time of publishing, others may have done the same. It is too big a risk for them to be involved with this ongoing controversy. Nike were particularly quick to act, ironic really given that they still endorse sprinter Justin Gatlin, who has twice been tested positive for a prohibited substance. But that is an argument to be had another time.
Importantly, this issue may say something more about the way the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) goes about informing sport’s stars about changes to the regulations. I am in no way defending Sharapova – she herself has accepted responsibility – but an email, in the middle of the off-season and just a few days before Christmas? That does not seem right.
How many times have we scrolled through our emails and missed one? It’s easy to do. Careless, but easy.
One email, days before Christmas and not long before the new changes are enforced, does not mirror the severity of the situation. Something could have been said at the US Open back in September, or the WTA Tour Championships in Singapore, where it would be easy to communicate with the players, and their teams, as they would all be in the same place at the same time.
“Meldonium had been on WADA’s ‘watchlist’ in 2015 because it has been linked with enhancing performance”
One wonders that, if Sharapova did not read the email, how many did? Are there other players in the top 10, 50, or 100 who are also unaware of the changes? Quite possibly. However, this does not detract away from the negligence shown by Sharapova, and indeed her team.
Meldonium had been on WADA’s ‘watchlist’ in 2015 because it has been linked with enhancing performance. It has been on their radar for a while. The Russian Anti-Doping agency also informed athletes last year that meldonium would be banned from January. Alarm bells should have been ringing in the Sharapova camp.
She has taken responsibility for it, owning up to what appears to be a genuine mistake, and should be respected for that. Many whom have failed drugs tests before have not, but that does not detract away from what has happened, knowingly or unknowingly.
It now remains to be seen what happens next. Sharapova, who has been provisionally suspended by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), could avoid a ban if she can prove that she has a medical condition that requires meldonium. Yet, if found guilty of use for performance-enhancing purposes, she could face a four-year ban from the sport. A career-ending spell on the sidelines.
Ultimately though, there seems to be many questions that need answering before we can be sure exactly what the future holds for one of the game’s superstars.
One thing does seem clear though: this could have all been avoided if Sharapova had opened that webpage on December 22nd.
Marcus Oades (@RFCOadesey)
Image: ‘Tourism Victoria’ via flickr