A Few Thoughts on Maria Sharapova

When word started to circulate late last week that Maria Sharapova was holding a press conference in Los Angeles today, most thought that she would announce her retirement. A slew of injuries, inching towards 20 straight losses to Serena Williams, and with an enviable off-court portfolio — it made sense, even if we felt it was too soon. Then, a few people started leaking that the announcement was definitely not retirement. The rumors swirled — pregnancy, illness, a new business venture, maybe another Sharapova flavor? By the time the cameras turned on to a garish ballroom in downtown Los Angeles at 12pm Pacific time, the oddsmakers were still favoring retirement as the most likely outcome, but really, it was anyone’s guess.

Appearing businesslike in black, Sharapova appeared at the podium alone and quickly got to the point. She explained that she had been taking mildronate for a decade, prescribed by her family doctor to address heart issues and diabetes indicators. However, mildronate, also known as meldonium, was placed on the World Anti Doping Agency’s (WADA) banned substances list as of January 1, 2016, and Sharapova admitted that she did not check the updated list of banned substances that was circulated late in 2015, and thus was not aware that the medication she had been taking for years was now banned. As a result, she failed a drug test that was administered during the Australian Open.

While the reason for the press conference — a failed drug test apparently due to carelessness (one hopes) — was completely unexpected, the handling of the situation was vintage Sharapova. She took full responsibility for the lapse, but reaffirmed her love for the sport, and expressed her hope that her career would not end on this note. She even had an arch retort for those who expected a retirement announcement, “If I was ever going to announce my retirement, it would probably not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet.”

As befits a megastar who manages her image, and her endorsements, impeccably, Sharapova was able to get ahead of the story by making the announcement on her terms. As we have seen in countless press conferences, and interviews, she took responsibility for her role, but also stood up for herself where needed. Whether by design or by chance, Sharapova also had the good fortune to announce her news on the same day that Peyton Manning announced his retirement and Erin Andrews was awarded $55 million by a jury following litigation over the stalking and videotaping she endured — ensuring that Sharapova’s announcement wouldn’t be the top sports news story of the day in the US, at least.

While Sharapova’s press conference provided some answers, there are far more questions left open. How long will her likely ban last? Was she taking the drug to enhance performance, rather than to prevent chronic illness, as she seems to have implied, and does that matter? Will she miss the Olympics? Will she be able to come back at an elite level after months, or even years off the tour? It’s hard to imagine her hanging up her racquet for good as a result of a ban, a la Martina Hingis in 2007. But, unlike the too frequent injury-based absences from the tour she has endured, it may be harder to spend this hiatus promoting other business ventures, given the circumstances.

Assuming the facts are as presented, it is undoubtedly a harsh result for what has been presented as a simple oversight. Surely, Sharapova and her lawyers will present all of the evidence they have to show that this was unintentional, and that there are mitigating circumstances here. And maybe she will have a shorter ban — not unlike Marin Cilic. While it is a tough penalty to face for what she has said is a mere mistake, it’s hard to argue for a different penalty scheme based on one case. Given how important it is to keep sports clean, there have to be tough penalties, and limited ways to adjust the penalties even in extenuating circumstances. As much as the facts here might encourage us to be lenient, the integrity of the system depends on a strict standard. Undoubtedly, every other tennis player will be checking the banned substances list with a fine toothed comb going forward, and that is certainly a desired consequence of the rules.

As much as anyone can call this kind of announcement masterful, Sharapova’s handling of the failed test and aftermath has been that, so far. But it’s worth noting that meldonium is a banned substance for reason — it has been used to enhance performance, specifically endurance. And, today’s tennis tour requires a significant amount of endurance. While Sharapova might not have sought to cheat the system, it would also be naive to assume that she wasn’t aware of the positive side effects of the medication. Of course, athletes are entitled to use all legal means to gain a competitive edge, and it would surprise no one if Sharapova had done that. But, by controlling the narative, Sharapova has managed to sidestep that part of the story, at least for now.

There is an irony in this — for Maria Sharapova, of all people, to make this kind of mistake is truly shocking. There are few players who carry themselves with the level of professionalism that Maria has exhibited over her career. From her candor in press conferences, to her reliably professional runner-up speeches when on the wrong end of a match, Sharapova has hewed to her own high standards of what a professional should be. Even her rare outbursts (“check her blood pressure” and the Serena takedown at Wimbledon) seem to stem from a conviction that others aren’t living up to appropriate professional standards. Undoubtedly, Sharapova’s track record has gotten her a lot of goodwill, and relatively little scrutiny, thus far.

So we’re left wondering, what next? In the early going, it appears that Sharapova’s announcement is enough to preserve her reputation, and, one suspects, her endorsements and business ventures (though Nike has suspended their relationship with her pending the outcome of the investigation). And, she is still nursing an injury that she can continue to rehabilitate while away from competition. But even a six month ban would keep her out of the next two Grand Slams and the Olympics, the latter of which was not certain due to a prior dispute with the Russian Federation. At this stage in her career, missing the Olympics, in particular, is devastating, but a longer ban could keep her out of competition for the rest of the year, at least. While it’s certain that Sharapova will call upon her considerable tenacity to return to the game whenever she can, she will certainly be missed until then. In a season of unexpected twists from Federer’s knee surgery, to Djokovic’s eye infection, to Kerber’s surprise win in Melbourne, Sharapova has managed to provide the unlikeliest storyline of all.

12 Responses

  1. Patrick of La Verne
    Patrick of La Verne March 9, 2016 at 11:50 am |

    Good summation, Anushka.

    I’d be very surprised if she weren’t suspended for at least one year, despite her indisputable star power. If not, how can tennis enforce tough penalties on the next player who treats the doping rules so casually.

    This is a sad story all the way around, and I think that one of the unreported outcomes of this contretemps is that while Maria Sharapova may have millions of Facebook and Twitter followers, I doubt that she has even one close friend in the locker-room. Right or wrong, when Victor Troicki had his issues a while back, Djokovic and others kind of went to bat for him and surely provided at least some moral support.

    I don’t envision that many of her rivals will be calling the Ice Princess to boost her spirits.

    She’s a tough cookie, but she has chosen to forge a lonely path in her sport, and may well come to regret having done so.

  2. Sabey
    Sabey March 9, 2016 at 12:42 pm |

    It’s the purported high level of professionalism and control that makes a “mistake” like this inexplicable. I think a ban until the end of 2016 is the least she should get. If the big stars get away with it the WTA will have no standing at all.They need to take a firm stance.

  3. Dennis
    Dennis March 9, 2016 at 4:04 pm |

    I think 6 months would be enough. This is, after all, a drug that was perfectly legal until 2 months ago, so at most she had only been taking it as a banned substance for a few weeks (and obviously it didn’t work wonders for her play in Australia), and she apparently thought it was still legal. If it had been on the banned list for years and she had been taking it for a long time while knowing it was banned, then yes, throw the book at her. Otherwise, I think anything more than 6 months is extreme and out of proportion to any actual harm done here.

  4. Sabey
    Sabey March 9, 2016 at 5:25 pm |

    This drug was not “perfectly legal” it was just not on the radar. It is not approved for use in the US and EU and was put on the watch list last year when it was observed to be in the systems of several athletes.

    1. Dennis
      Dennis March 10, 2016 at 10:39 am |

      It was not on the WADA banned list, therefore it was legal for her to take as an athlete. That it is not approved by the US FDA is irrelevant. It is legal in Russian, Latvia, Lithuania, and other Eastern European countries. The FDA and EU drug regulators are not the arbiters of all things good in the world. The FDA in particular is notoriously slow to approve new drugs compared to regulatory bodies through out the world, and plenty of good and useful drugs throughout the world are in use that are not FDA approved. Only a very America-centric view of the world thinks the lack of FDA approval is of any relevance here.

      WADA itself is often absurd. Routine over the counter medicines people take every day for colds, flu, backache, etc., are often banned under draconian interpretations of “performance enhancement”. I see that caffeine is on the 2016 “watch list”. So, are athletes now to be banned from having a cup of coffee in the morning? Ridiculous.

  5. catherine bell
    catherine bell March 10, 2016 at 7:42 am |

    Agree – as has been noted it was put on the watch list in September and reminders were issued in December.
    Sharapova and her support team apparently ignored them all.

    A ‘slap on the wrist’ would send a very bad message.

  6. catherine bell
    catherine bell March 10, 2016 at 1:13 pm |

    Dennis –

    Your comment misses the point. WADA did not place Meldonium on the watch list on the basis of its not being approved by the FDA. And the ‘legality’ of this drug in many East European countries is also irrelevant.
    The unarguable fact remains that Sharapova ignored the warnings.

    There are lots of common medications which are on the banned list because the formulations in which athletes take them are often not the same as in over the counter preparations.

    Caffeine ? It’s a stimulant.High density preparations will be banned. I recall Serena Williams swilling down a double espresso during a match in Aust at the end of 2014 because she was drowsy
    with jet lag. She asked if it was ok and was assured it was. (she won the match).

    Not sure if that would be ok now. But pretty sure an early morning cup of coffee will be permitted.

    1. Dennis
      Dennis March 10, 2016 at 5:45 pm |

      I never said it was placed in the watch list on the basis of not being approved by the FDA. The comment I was responding to stated, “This drug was not “perfectly legal” it was just not on the radar. It is not approved for use in the US and EU and was put on the watch list last year when it was observed to be in the systems of several athletes.”

      It was that previous post that seemed to imply that not being FDA approved was somehow a factor in whether or not it should be banned by WADA or put on a watch list. My point was simply that it was not banned by WADA before, therefore it was indeed perfectly acceptable and legal for her to get it in a jurisdiction where it is approved, whether or not the FDA or EU regulators approve it for sale and distribution in their own countries. The FDA often drags its feet approving new drugs that have been in use around the world for years and have been proven to have beneficial effects. Probably more to do with protecting US pharmaceutical companies than purely scientific reasons.

  7. Sabey
    Sabey March 11, 2016 at 9:44 am |

    I wrote that last post Dennis refers to. I did not mean to say that FDA approval or not was a factor in it being banned. Simply, that it not being in use in any place other than Eastern Europe meant that not enough was known about this drug. It was NOT specifically legal or approved it just was known and therefore not banned.
    It has however been on the watch list since 2015 and all athletes were warned about this many times. Sharapova’s defense of “I did not click on the link” is laughable as she had at least five such emails and also a highly paid team of people to look out for such things.
    Keep in mind, this is a drug the Soviets gave their soldiers to improve their strength and recover from exertion.

    1. Sabey
      Sabey March 11, 2016 at 9:44 am |

      meant to say the drug was “not known and therefore not banned”

  8. catherine bell
    catherine bell March 11, 2016 at 10:07 am |

    Andy Murray’s comments are the best I’ve seen from a player. Basically he says that it’s the athlete’s responsibility to read any relevant emails or other information sent to them, whether they have medical support people in place or not.
    If they don’t – then no excuses.

  9. Hartt
    Hartt March 11, 2016 at 12:03 pm |

    I think that the relevance of the drug not being approved by the FDA is the issue of whether it was medically necessary or not. Because Sharapova lives in the US there must be other treatments for her ailments that millions of Americans use. So that makes it hard for her to use the medically necessary argument.
    I hope that whatever sanctions she is given that she is treated in exactly the same way a player ranked No. 200 would be treated. Otherwise the anti-doping regime would be totally unfair and a joke.

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