March 8, 2016

We Need to Talk About Maria

So I realize it's been a while since I posted anything here, but after yesterday's shocking announcement from Maria Sharapova, it's hard to stay silent.

For those who don't know, here's a quick recap: the former world #1 on Monday announced she'd failed a drug test. During this year's Australian Open, she tested positive for Meldonium, a medication she says she'd been taking since 2006 to help treat a variety of ailments including low magnesium and possible symptoms of diabetes. Following the test, the ITF implemented a "provisional suspension" on the five-time Grand Slam champion that will start March 12 and could last as long as two years -- maybe even more.

But what does that mean? For Maria? For her career? For the sport?

Well first, the good and the sorta-good: Days after receiving the test results, Sharapova admitted her "huge" mistake, apologized to her fans and took the blame entirely upon herself. She said she was ready to accept both the responsibility and the consequences of her actions. As for the drug itself -- Meldonium was only added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's this year, so Maria probably tested positive for it for years without ever violating any regulations.

On the other hand...

Meldonium isn't exactly a mainstream drug. While it can be used for chest pain and to treat heart attacks, some medical experts doubt whether it has any efficacy with diabetes patients. Developed by a Latvian pharmaceutical company, it's available in Lithuania and Sharapova's native Russia, but not approved by the U.S Food and Drug Administration. And you would think Maria, the highest paid female athlete in the world last year -- though with sponsorships from Nike and Porsche getting dropped after yesterday's announcement, her income will certainly take a hit in 2016 -- wouldn't have to take chances on second-rate medications.

And while the medication did only become illegal this year, it had been in WADA's monitoring program prior to 2016, so authorities were aware it potentially posed a problem. Maria said when the group sent around their newest list of banned substances in late December, she neglected to "click on the link" and didn't read through the changes. Yes, that could be a simple oversight -- the holidays are always crazy, and it was only weeks later that she tested positive, so maybe she (and the six other athletes who tested positive for the same drug since January) really just didn't get around to it.

Still, if you're taking a substance that's on any kind of watch list, shouldn't you be hyper-aware of what's allowed and what's not? At a press conference today, ahead of an exhibition at Madison Square Garden, current world #25 Caroline Wozniacki said:

"Anytime we take any medication I think we double and triple and quadruple check. Because sometimes even things like cough drops or nasal sprays can be on the list, so I think as athletes we always really make sure that there's nothing in it that could put us in a bad situation."

And shouldn't one of the cadre of doctors, physios, trainers, etc. on your team at least alert you to the fact that something you're taking may raise questions? Former top-ranked phenom Jennifer Capriati certainly took issue, tweeting:

"I didn't have the high priced team of drs that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up. The responses are exactly what i am talking about. Everything based on illusion and lie driven by the media for over 20 yrs. Beyond unfair."

But the reaction from of most of Maria's peers was positive. Martina Navratilova urged everyone to reserve judgement until the ITF's investigation was completed, former pro James Blake called her admission "classy", and young gun Ryan Harrison said it was an "honest mistake from a great champion". At the same press conference at MSG, Serena Williams, who's certainly had a long history with Sharapova and hasn't always been her best friend, said:

"Most were happy that she was upfront and very honest...As Maria said, she's ready to take full responsibility and I think that showed a lot of courage and a lot of heart, and I think she's always showed courage and heart in everything that she's done, and this is no different."

Others on social media were not so forgiving. Many pointed out that, even with performance enhancing drugs, Maria hadn't beaten Serena in over ten years, or wondered whether public sentiment would be so positive had it been the [African-American] world #1 who'd tested positive.

In any case, what ultimately happens to Sharapova is still unknown -- before her press conference it was widely rumored she would announce her retirement, and she acknowledged that speculation, saying she hoped she wouldn't have to end her career this way. She doesn't necessarily have to -- Marin Cilic, who served a four-month ban for doping, came back to win the U.S. Open in 2014, and Martina Hingis, forced out for two years after cocaine was found in her system -- she denies ever taking the drug -- was not only inducted into the Hall of Fame, but returned to Tour and has won three Grand Slam doubles titles since.

Of course Maria may not be so resilient -- plagued with injuries for years, the twenty-eight year old has said before she's unlikely to play into her mid thirties like Serena or her sister Venus. And if she's suspended for any significant length of time -- though she'll certainly have had the time to recover -- she honestly may not be as much of a force when she gets back to work.

So Sharapova is certainly in a tough spot, and as she's one of the most recognizable faces of the game, so is tennis. The "Gentleman's Sport" may not seem so high-brow if the legacy of one of its brightest and most bankable stars is tarnished. But if this really was just an honest mistake, hopefully she'll be able to come back swinging even harder when it's all over.