When Maria Sharapova called for a press conference on Monday for a ‘major announcement’, the rumour mills went abuzz. Would she be retiring, recent injuries playing havoc with her game? Or was it something to do with her vast fortune built up steadily by endorsements and business ventures? But no body could fathom how big the announcement was, of the 28-year-old failing a drugs test and taking full responsibility for it.
The former world No 1 has been taking meldonium since 2006 for health reasons. World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) placed the drug on it’s monitoring programme in 2015 and since January 1, 2016, put it on its banned list because they found evidence of athletes using it to enhance performances. Neither Sharapova nor her team checked or kept track of the development.
It was during the Australian Open that Sharapova provided the anti-doping sample to the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (TADP). Particularly, January 26, the day she lost to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals. WADA analysed the sample and found the Russian to have tested positive for meldonium. She was charged on March 2 with an ‘anti-doping rule violation in accordance with Article 8.1.1 of the TADP and has been provisionally suspended with effect from March 12, pending determination of the case’.
Watch | Maria Sharapova: I made a huge mistake
Mistake and sorry
Dressed in all black, Sharapova took to the stage in a hotel in Los Angeles and said words which, despite the seriousness of the situation, came as a refreshing change. She took full responsibility for her actions, didn’t blame anyone or an outside force and hoped for another chance.
“I made a huge mistake. I have let my fans down, and let the sport down that I have been playing since the age of four that I love so deeply. I know that with this I face consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way. I really hope to be given another chance to play this game,” the Russian told the press.
Despite the sombre mood, she found some humour - “know many of you thought that I would be retiring today but if I was ever going to announce my retirement it would not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet!”
This frank mistake and confession has brought her support from the tennis fraternity. Legend Martina Navratilova tweeted ‘hope this gets cleared up as it seems 2 me to be an honest mistake.’ Others, too have rallied behind her. However, Jennifer Capriati, the former thrice Major champion, was left ‘angry and disappointed’.
What happens next
Sharapova can apply for a retroactive therapeutic use exemption (TUE). This exemption is for athletes who need to use certain banned drugs because of medical conditions without committing a doping violation.
Sharapova’s lawyer John Haggerty explained that the tennis star started taking meldonium after extensive tests on the reasons for her falling ill often. “She took it on a regular basis as recommended by her doctor. He told her what to take and when to take it, and then continued to test her and confirm that it was giving her the desired improved medical condition,” Haggerty said.
Sharapova added that: “It is very important for you to understand that for 10 years this medicine was not on WADA’s banned list and I had been legally taking that medicine for the past 10 years. But on January 1 the rules had changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance, which I had not known… I received an email on December 22 from WADA about the changes happening to the banned list and you can see prohibited items - and I didn’t click on that link.”
If, after investigations, Sharapova is found guilty, there is a chance she could be banned for upto four years according to WADA and TADP guidelines. Other high profile players like Marin Cilic and Viktor Troicki, who had been suspended for such violations, all had their lengths reduced. Cilic’s ruling was reduced from nine to four months in October 2013 while Troicki, was suspended for 12 months in the same year. If, in an extreme case, Sharapova is found guilty and banned, it will be a major blow to women’s tennis. And with match-fixing allegations which broke during the Australian Open, this would further hamper the image of tennis.
Sharapova is one of the most recognisable tennis players in the world. The five-time Grand Slam champion is the highest-earning female athlete with career-earnings from the sport close to 26 million pounds. According to Forbes, her earnings from sponsorship deals was close to $23million last year itself.
Though plagued by recent injuries Sharapova has only played in three tournaments in eight months where her ranking has been hampered, there’s been no dip in her popularity amid sponsors. From her trademark grunts on court to her fashionable appearances in top events, Sharapova came to the forefront since her fairytale 2007 Wimbledon win.
Nike, the sportswear company, who has been associated with Sharapova for years, announced they have ‘suspended our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues’. Is this just the beginning of a fall from grace or will Sharapova be able to battle her way back to the top, like she has in the past on court? Only time will tell.