Maria Sharapova, perpetrator of a small crime, learning superstar status cuts both ways
The tennis world waited with bated breath on Monday night expecting Maria Sharapova to announce her premature retirement. It was anticipated that her troublesome injuries had finally taken their toll and that she had given up the good fight, leaving a gaping hole in the women’s game, as much for her transcendent superstar status as her on-court prowess.
Instead what unfolded was far more shocking, with far greater ramifications both for Sharapova and the game of tennis.
Sharapova, a five-time grand slam champion, former world No 1, and arguably the biggest star of the WTA Tour, announced she had failed a drugs test at the Australian Open. She tested positive for Meldonium, a drug she said she had been taking since 2006 to battle a variety of ailments, but was only added to the banned list this year, and would “take full responsibility” for her oversight.
From tennis’ perspective, the revelation is the latest blow to the integrity of a sport already battling widespread betting scandals involving players and umpires, made worse by a perceived lack of meaningful action from the authorities. is the latest blow to the integrity of a sport already battling widespread betting scandals involving players and umpires, made worse by a perceived lack of meaningful action from the authorities.
For Sharapova, her remarkable on-court achievements, from winning Wimbledon at age 17 to becoming just the sixth woman in the Open era to win all four grand slams, threaten to be overshadowed by the dark cloud of doping. She will always be remembered as a five-time grand slam champion and former world No 1, only now it will be a five-time grand slam champion and former world No 1 who failed a drugs test.
To make it perfectly clear, this is far from a Lance Armstrong-esque episode of widespread and systematic doping designed to cheat the competition, driven by a brazen single-mindedness that put winning before everything else.
The substance Sharapova tested positive for was, prior to January 1, perfectly legal for athletes to take. Even the world’s greatest cynic would be hard pressed to suggest Sharapova intentionally cheated.
Yet, intent is not the deciding factor when dealing with doping cases. Certain litigating factors may be considered when assessing each individual case, but human error or ignorance will very rarely be enough to prevent some degree of punishment and, perhaps more damaging, a tainted image.
On the basis that, as most would agree, Sharapova’s guilt is founded on disregard – she admitted to receiving the email from the World Anti-doping Agency of updated banned substances only to ignore it – then her punishment will likely be a short-term suspension. The offence can carry a maximum ban of four years, but that seems an unlikely and severe outcome.
It only serves to make the whole sorry saga even more bewildering. For an athlete and businesswoman renown for being a control freak in every aspect of her career, how she would not check the updated list is remarkable. Additionally, given the team she has around her – agents, managers, coaches, nutritionists, et al – would it not have been someone’s duty to ensure such negligence was avoided?
Surely if a professional athlete is putting anything unnatural in their bodies, it is imperative to check said substance does not contain any banned components, even if for the previous 10 years it was deemed legal.
These are certainly testing times for Sharapova, and until she discovers the severity of the punishment, it will be difficult for her to assess her future. Sports giants Nike are among those who have already suspended their relationship with Sharapova until further action is taken, while several figures within tennis have voiced their opinions, both in support and anger, at the news.
But given the context of the situation, Sharapova should be able to bounce back like many athletes involved in similar scenarios: former Manchester United and England footballer Rio Ferdinand returned from an eight-month ban for missing a drugs test to resume a highly successful career. The ban is barely even considered when discussing Ferdinand’s playing career now he is retired, reduced to a few lines on his Wikipedia entry.
In tennis, Marin Cilic was given a nine-month ban in 2013 after traces of a banned stimulant were found in a sample. The Croatian is now better remembered as the 2014 US Open champion.
What sets Sharapova apart from these two cases, and indeed most doping cases, is her undeniable superstar status. Like Roger Federer, Lionel Messi, and Tiger Woods, she has transcended her sport, more so than any other female tennis player.
Such status often equates to preferential treatment, but that works both ways, and the scrutiny she now faces will be more intense than the average athlete.
Undoubtedly, both tennis and Sharapova will hope for a lenient punishment to move on from the whole sorry mess. While she has built herself a multimillion dollar business empire, Sharapova is first and foremost a tennis player. That is how history will remember her, and she will need the sport she loves “so deeply” to get back to where she feels she belongs.
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Updated: March 8, 2016 04:00 AM