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.