Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova announced in a press conference on Monday that she had tested positive for banned drug Meldonium, following which she will be provisionally suspended with effect from March 12. The quantum of her punishment is yet to be announced.
A sample Sharapova provided after her loss to Serena Williams at this year’s Australian Open was found to contain the drug, which is known to boost oxygen uptake and endurance. Effective from January 1 this year, Meldonium was put on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances after the doping watchdog found evidence of several athletes using it to enhance performance.
Meldonium, also known as mildronate, is a Latvian-manufactured drug popular for fighting heart disease in former Soviet Union countries and is little-known in the US, where Sharapova resides. The five-time Grand Slam champion said she began using the drug in 2006 to counter “several health issues,” including a magnesium deficiency, the flu, irregular ECG results and early signs of diabetes, of which she has a family history.
Sharapova and all players were notified of the changes in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned substances list in December. The Russian claimed she simply missed the change, neglecting to click on the link.
The news was shocking, to say the least.
It’s rare for a tennis player to test positive for a performance-enhancing drug. It’s virtually unheard of for a player to announce it themselves, let alone one as high profile as Sharapova.
But the main reason why the news was so shocking was perhaps because it was so unexpected. Once the Russian announced the press conference on Twitter on Monday, social media was rife with speculation as to what it could be about.
The prime suspect was a possible retirement. Since her loss to Serena Williams in Wimbledon last year, Sharapova has only played in four events, retiring in her first match in one of them. She also withdrew from the US Open, the China Open, the Brisbane International, last month’s Qatar Open and this week’s Indian Wells BNP Paribas Open, arguably the biggest tournament on tour after the Slams.
Given her long struggle with injuries, it would not have been all that surprising if the Russian had decided to call it quits.
Speculation was rife Maria Sharapova was to announce her retirement or that she was pregnant. No one guessed a failed drugs test.— jane (@GunnerJane) 7 March 2016
It will be a shame if Maria Sharapova announces her retirement... but tennis will go on..... it always does.. and we will all still love it!— Chris Goldsmith (@TheTennisTalker) 7 March 2016
Members of the tennis community were some of the first to react to the news.
Very disappointed waking up to hear the news about @MariaSharapova ...— Kim Clijsters (@Clijsterskim) 8 March 2016
Still in shock about yesterday's news regarding #Sharapova ...can't believe it— Boris Becker (@TheBorisBecker) 8 March 2016
Sharapova failed a drugs test. Not sure what to make of that.— Anne Keothavong (@annekeothavong) 7 March 2016
Former player and three-time Grand Slam champion Jennifer Capriati was particularly critical of Sharapova.
What's the point of someone taking a heart medicine that helps your heart recover faster unless you have a heart condition? Is thataccurate?— Jennifer Capriati (@JenCapriati) 7 March 2016
It's always about one thing that benefits everyone.#money— Jennifer Capriati (@JenCapriati) 7 March 2016
Sometimes it's all about what gives you the most confidence to win— Jennifer Capriati (@JenCapriati) 7 March 2016
The advantages are so subtle they can be just a hair width difference. that gives you only what you need to know to reach that extra level— Jennifer Capriati (@JenCapriati) 7 March 2016
Why is this medication banned now?— Jennifer Capriati (@JenCapriati) 7 March 2016
If this medication helped me to comeback again would everyone be alright with me taking it?— Jennifer Capriati (@JenCapriati) 7 March 2016
My opinions are strong because I had what I loved to do most taken from me through pain and injury.It's devastating to stop when on top— Jennifer Capriati (@JenCapriati) 8 March 2016
So for 10 years you've been able to play with a now banned substance? That's a careers worth of time— Jennifer Capriati (@JenCapriati) 8 March 2016
If medically necessary an exemption should be requested and approved. If not crucial then had no business taking.It's not a vitamin— Jennifer Capriati (@JenCapriati) 8 March 2016
“I know that with this, I face consequences,” Sharapova said. “I don’t want to end my career this way, and I really hope I will be given another chance to play this game.”
There were those that sided with the Russian. Serena Williams, Sharapova’s biggest rival, said the Russian “showed a lot of courage” in taking responsibility for her actions. But many also expressed how important it is for a professional sportsperson to know what they can and can’t put in their bodies.
Wow. Classy of @MariaSharapova to hold a press conference for this and admit making a mistake. Definitely agree that have to be aware though— James Blake (@JRBlake) 7 March 2016
Maria handled the press conference with class, however all pro athletes should be well aware of what they are taking.— Michael Russell (@MRusselltennis) 7 March 2016
Maria handled that so well. In my opinion, honest mistake from a great champion.— Ryan Harrison (@ryanharrison92) 7 March 2016
I do not want to see @MariaSharapova career end on an honest mistake.— Jamie Hampton (@Jamie_Hampton) 8 March 2016
@MariaSharapova handled today like a true champion. Very classy of her after an honest mistake— Madison Keys (@Madison_Keys) 8 March 2016
There were also those that saw Sharapova’s announcement as a way to present her side of the story first, effectively taking control of the narrative. Her failure to check the WADA list also came in for flak.
Moment to just say: #Sharapova remains a MASTER of PR. Creating all that hype so that her side is heard first around the world? Genius.— Andrew Eccles (@BackSwings) 8 March 2016
y'all were ready to crucify Serena when you THOUGHT she was taking drugs and #Sharapova actually is and "it's everyone makes mistakes" smh— Ashley (@ashleytet) 8 March 2016
#Sharapova is pulling a Donald Trump. Lie with a straight face and the large population of intellectually challenged will eat it up.— Sean (@tennisjuize) 8 March 2016
"Didn't see the email" is about as convincing as replying to a text six hours too late saying "sorry just saw your text now". #Sharapova— Damien Glynn (@damog7) 8 March 2016
Still stunned that nobody on Shazza team checked new list from wada, players are responsible but this is big time oversight on team as well— Brad Gilbert (@bgtennisnation) 7 March 2016
I slag athletics off for the way old stars sometimes rally round drug cheats but tennis seems to have taken it to a new level with Sharapova— Oliver Holt (@OllieHolt22) 8 March 2016
I've seen her described as 'courageous' + 'classy', essentially for failing a drugs test. Is that really the message tennis wants 2 send out— Oliver Holt (@OllieHolt22) 8 March 2016
Claiming ignorance is not taking "full responsibility." #Sharapova— Sean (@tennisjuize) 8 March 2016
Sharapova, herself, was aware, of the speculation about her retirement. In a rare moment of humour during the announcement, she put those rumours to rest. “If I was going to announce my retirement, it wouldn’t be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet,” she said.
"If I was going 2 announce my retirement, it wouldn’t b in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with a fairly ugly carpet." Sharapova. Standards 💜— judy murray (@judmoo) 7 March 2016
And then there were those that saw a bit of humour in the entire situation.
This Women's Day, the real woman of substance is Maria Sharapova.— Sahil Shah (@SahilBulla) 8 March 2016
Somebody asked Maria Sharapova to give a message of hope for #InternationalWomensDay . Apparently there was a typographical error.— Madhavan Narayanan (@madversity) 8 March 2016
Enna vi na dope shope Maria karo.— drumpf (@floydimus) 7 March 2016