When Maria Sharapova dropped the positive-dope-test bomb, “she mustn’t have known” went the defensive drawl of her loyalists. Her many detractors — she polarises opinion at the best of times; in the worst of times, she’s also a Russian when the country is teetering close to being branded as one where state-sponsored doping is endemic — would have none of this sympathetic drivel.
An elite athlete — raking in $23 million in endorsements each year — is expected to have a team that’s equipped to pick up on an East European drug that got declared dubious last September. And then a bunch of mea culpas on a sanitised stage that had American PR machinery stamped all over it cannot silence the naysayers who sigh about how yet another therapeutic drug could wickedly be used as a performance-enhancer. Irrespective of whether she took meldonium for the first 25 days of this January (when it was banned) or over the last 10 years (when it was not banned), the stigma of substance abuse puts Sharapova in an ethical dock. Getting out of this corner will need the dogged Russian to prove how drastically magnesium deficient her body is and how vulnerable the uneven ECGs showed her heart was.
The naïve Sharapova fan will see in all this yet another sharpening of knives against a player who earns $10 million more than Serena Williams, and has just five majors to her credit against the American’s 21. Despite the meldonium in her system, she seldom managed to beat Williams, who said it was brave of Sharapova to be honest and upfront.
It is easy to root against Sharapova, to be a non-fan, just as it is easy to go rushing to her defence in the aftermath of the positive dope test. At Dubai’s tour event final, exactly 10 years ago, she was trading backhands in a long rally with a personal favourite, Justine Henin. Her double-handed backhand crosscourt from the baseline kept landing at the same precise spot, for what seemed like an eternity, even as Henin’s single-handed backhand gasped for power but refused to give up. I fail to remember who blinked in that unending rally but Henin won the match. It seemed pointless being either players’ fan as two stubborn women battled it out. Was meldonium racing through her veins that evening as the ball hit the same spot a dozen times or was it the famed eight hours a day she put in? We’ll never quite know. The gullible fan’s travails have just begun.
You might not have ever shopped for Sugarpova candy — her far-reach targets were Japan and China, we’re told. And Nike and Tag Heuer have their bases covered, swamping up a clutch of other tennis legends to endorse their stuff. So, to be sure, the loss of earnings when sponsors went on a dumping spree soon after the announcement is expected to solidly hit that $23 million a year, and that much-begrudged $ 23 million alone.
Most thought the Monday press conference was to announce Sharapova’s retirement, and there would be a fair few glowing tributes penned in advance, dropping the curtains on the 29-year-old’s highly publicised career. Now, a ban — stretching from a few months to four years — looms. A pity, the script went so spectacularly awry and a dope taint got splotched on that falling curtain.
Sharapova did acknowledge the retirement speculations. “If I was going to announce my retirement, it would probably not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet,” she said. It’s not surprising though that in her biggest moment of disgrace, as she sat there looking contrite (or was it casually down at the floor), Sharapova noticed how unattractive that mustard carpet with random brown rings was.
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