Maria Sharapova’s announcement last week didn’t just come out of the blue, it came out of every possible colour imaginable. When she called a last-minute press conference in a dingy Las Vegas hotel, speculation as to why was rife. Could she be announcing retirement? Had her recent injury woes forced her to take prolonged time off? Was she about to announce the latest flavour for her Sugarpova sweet brand?
As it transpired, Sharapova had actually decided to hold court in order to announce that she had tested positive for the banned substance of meldonium at this year’s Australian Open in January. With a sombre expression – one that seemed close to tears at points – Sharapova explained that she had been taking the drug, which to her had been prescribed as mildronate, for the last ten years to help her with potential heart issues. It had only been banned by World Anti-Doping Agency in late 2015.
As one of the most recognisable figures in sport, the tennis world has been rocked by the news. Sharapova is a five-time Grand Slam winner, first coming to prominence at just seventeen years old when she won Wimbledon in 2004, and has remained an ever-present figure at the top end of the rankings.
Her success in the game however is dwarfed by her status off the court. With career earnings of near £200 million, and ‘only’ £25 million of that coming from actual winnings, Sharapova has found herself as the highest paid female athlete for eleven straight years according to Forbes Magazine.
A marketing dream, the 28-year-old has consistently endorsed products with enthusiasm and commitment: perhaps it is this image of Sharapova as a model professional that has made her admission all the more shocking. Even in her press conference, she emphasised her regret, whilst simultaneously taking full responsibility for her actions; not a hint of denial or injustice.
Already, the tennis world has been divided by the news, seemingly unsure of whether to condemn the Russian for her breach of the rules, or give her the benefit of the doubt and accept that this was just an honest mistake. Retired American Jennifer Capriati, who had her career ended by injury, went on a vehement Twitter rant, with little sympathy for Sharapova, tweeting “Maybe I should start taking it? Lol I might feel better”.British number one Andy Murray has also expressed his views that Sharapova is deserving of a ban saying that she “must accept responsibility” for her actions, while sponsors Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche have all now distanced themselves from the star.
Others have been more supportive however, with long-time rival Serena Williams commending the Russian’s courage for admitting her mistake so openly. Furthermore, 18-time Grand Slam champion Martina Navratilova believes that Sharapova made nothing more than an “honest mistake”.
Regardless of opinions, there are a few certainties. Sharapova has broken the rules and used a banned substance; whether it was knowingly or not is irrelevant.
She will almost undoubtedly serve a ban but the length of it is yet to be determined. Such a felony can come with a four-year suspension, but that is rare and, unless she successfully applies for a TUE that allows her to legally use the drug for health purposes, it is likely to be a ban of between one and two years.
There is no way of knowing whether Sharapova is innocent or not but negligence should be no excuse. Tennis has enough speculation surrounding its athletes (Rafael Nadal has had to continually deny any wrongdoing) that it shouldn’t matter whether the player is ranked one or one thousand in the world: cheating must be punished.
In the murky world of doping, it is essential that athletes are presumed guilty until proven innocent; otherwise it compromises the integrity of the entire sport.
Image courtesy of Kenneth Hong