Bad News for Maria Sharapova is Worse News for Tennis

Maria Sharapova in her game against Eugenie Bouchard at the 2013 Roland Garros. Credit: la_bretagne_a_paris/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Maria Sharapova in her game against Eugenie Bouchard at the 2013 Roland Garros. Credit: la_bretagne_a_paris/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

At her lowest point, Maria Sharapova relied on what she knew best. Careful management of the media has been among her biggest strengths. The 28-year-old Russian’s career has been as much about her success on the court as it has been about constructing an image that’s marketable and glamorous. Sharapova’s achievements pale in comparison to Serena Williams’s trophy-laden career. Yet, like her American counterpart, she’s instantly recognisable worldwide.

Faced with a suspension that could bring an end to her professional career, Sharapova called a press conference in a downtown Los Angeles hotel on March 7 to announce that she had been provisionally suspended for failing a drug test at the Australian Open in January 2016. Meldonium, the drug that had been part of the Russian’s life for a decade, had been added to the list of banned substances in January in that same month. Sharapova claimed innocence on the basis of ignorance. According to her, she had not read the mail sent by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) notifying her of the change.

In light of her suspension, she chose to take control of the narrative. An upfront account in front of the press would allow her to be seen as honest; any claims of cheating would be instantly batted away. Sharapova knew the name of the drug as mildronate, another name for meldonium – a name she claims she did not know. More significantly, she claimed that she had been using mildronate for health reasons. A magnesium deficiency and family history of diabetes had led to its prescription by the family doctor.

Investing in the cultivation of a brand

This claim, however, raises problematic questions. For an elite sportsperson with a fairly strong support team, it seems baffling that nobody in her camp cared to learn about the addition of meldonium to the list of banned substances. The change in rules had been notified to all Russian athletes by the country’s anti-doping organisation last September.

Furthermore, on March 8, the Latvian manufacturer of the drug said in a statement that a normal course of the medicine lasted four to six weeks. The company added that the drug is mainly used by chronic heart patients. Meldonium’s capability to aid blood flow, however, has remarkable significance for a top-level athlete. It reduces recovery time as more oxygen is carried to muscle tissues. WADA did not make a sudden decision to put the drug on the list of banned substances. Meldonium had been monitored throughout 2015 by the anti-doping organisation.

The world of tennis, like any global sport, is increasingly medicalised. Nowadays, elite sportspersons receive immense support from their medical staff. Over-information is a greater possibility than under-information. For a player of Sharapova’s stature, it would be natural to pay attention to developments around a drug that is so important for her health. Yet, neither she nor her team responded to the situation. For 25 days, Sharapova remained under the influence of a banned drug and participated in a Grand Slam tournament.

Her claim seems more strange when one recognises that she is known on the professional circuit to pay excessive attention to detail, on and off the court. Her tennis career and endorsements are carefully managed with nothing left to chance. To cultivate her brand, Sharapova even started her own line of candies. It was a reminder of how important the brand had become; she was willing to launch products in her name that other sportspersons would not normally consider – even as the brand owed its life to her tennis career. A career that now hangs by a thread because an email from WADA was left unread.

Yet, to assess Sharapova’s culpability, it’s necessary to go beyond the 25-day period. For 10 years, the Russian superstar was using a drug that potentially afforded her an advantage over her opponents. The use might have been legally acceptable but there are ethical implications at play. In the aftermath of Sharapova’s press conference, former American tennis player Jennifer Capriati took to Twitter to express her dissatisfaction with the Russian’s defence.

“I had to lose my career [to injury] and never opted to cheat no matter what. I had to throw in the towel and suffer. I didn’t have the high priced team of (doctors) that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up. What’s the point of someone taking a heart medicine that helps your heart recover faster unless you have a heart condition?”

Pretending it’s not a big deal

The majority of the tennis fraternity, though, remained supportive. Even arch-rival Serena Williams praised Sharapova for “showing courage”. And there was even the odd defence of Sharapova: Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpishchev unequivocally claimed that the country’s biggest star would return in time to play at the Rio Olympics later this year.

“I think this is just a load of nonsense. The sportsmen take what they are given by the physiotherapists and by the doctors,” added Tarpishchev. This statement revealed much about the way elite athletes often surrender to the judgment of doctors and physios. The imperative of sporting excellence runs counter to the goals of medicine. In one’s desire to achieve great success, one may resort to means that don’t place health concerns at the front. While Sharapova claimed that her health issues prompted the use of meldonium, its use for performance enhancement by other athletes shows that the lines can often be blurred. Interestingly a number of sportspersons have earned bans for the use of meldonium this year, including Russian cyclist Eduard Vorganov and ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova.

In light of the systematic doping system unearthed in Russian athletics last year, some may be tempted to point that cheating is a Russian problem. Some may even seek to extend the idea by calling it an Eastern European problem by citing the doping cases of tennis players Marin Cilic (Croatia) and Viktor Troicki (Serbia). However, this is a Cold War hangover that finds its origins in the centrally-organised doping system in East Germany. Such clichéd metaphors come easy to those who write in mainstream Western media outlets. And such misguided arguments ignore the reality.

Tennis is run and supported by individuals and companies that are an inextricable part of the capitalist industry, an industry that thrives in affluent Western societies. Sharapova, despite her nationality, has been a United States resident since 1994. Her sponsors are among the major market forces of the day. Tennis and its players’ global appeal is enhanced by the transnational capitalist class. Therefore, doping or even match-fixing is not a regional problem. It is a problem for tennis worldwide. With the returns on offer growing over the years, tennis players are increasingly looking to gain due or undue advantages.

The inadequate response of tennis authorities to doping, however, has masked the nature of threat it poses to the sport. The International Tennis Federation (ITF), in the name of protecting a player’s reputation, does not make the suspension public until the case has been decided by an independent tribunal. The hearing may not take place for three months as both parties are given time to prepare their case. However, in order to protect themselves, players often take a break from playing without revealing the reason. When the word finally comes out, it leads to awkward situations, as happened in Cilic’s case in 2013.

Taking control of the narrative

The lack of transparency on the tennis authorities’ part has caused problems to other players as well. Andy Murray, the British tennis star, had called out the authorities to reveal information ahead of a 2013 Davis Cup tie against Croatia when Cilic’s absence remained unexplained. “I think it’s about time everyone knew what was going on. I just don’t know why he’s not playing, it’s not that he’s injured,” the Scot was reported saying back then.

When Sharapova called the press conference for Monday, the ITF would have known what to expect but made no effort to reveal the information on its own. Sharapova was allowed to move ahead and control the damage. This raises serious questions over the tennis authorities’ approach to doping cases.

The public relations exercise by Sharapova has partly succeeded in its aims. Her account has been viewed generously by the tennis fraternity and public at large. However, as some have suggested, white privilege may have something to do with the sympathetic response. A similar scandal involving Serena Williams would probably have unleashed a public invective against the American star.

But that question remains hypothetical. Sharapova’s troubles, on the other hand, are rooted in reality. There remains a chance that she might get away with a small ban. Sharapova could request a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) if she can prove that she needs meldonium for a health-related condition. The TUE would be applied retrospectively and her career will be resuscitated. However, Sharapova could end up with a two year ban if she’s found to be negligent. The punishment is doubled if it can be proved that the drug was used for performance-enhancement.

With the hearing set to take place later this month, Sharapova’s career and reputation hangs in the balance. Depending on the outcome of the hearing, she could be left utterly disgraced or redeemed. It would obviously be a major blow for the sport if a player of her stature was to experience a fall from grace.  Only a couple of months after the match-fixing scandal rocked tennis, a doping ban for one of the sport’s most prominent faces is probably the last thing tennis wants.

At the same time, this issue has raised questions that tennis needs to address seriously. It has enjoyed a cleaner image than most other popular sports in the 21st century. No corruption crisis, like the one faced by FIFA, or issues of doping, that have dogged athletics and cycling for years, have hurt the sport’s image. But apprehensions over fixing and doping have been aired by players in recent years. For tennis, the chickens may have finally come home to roost. Sharapova is already losing sponsors and her reputation is in tatters. If she ends up with a lengthy ban, it won’t be just her who will suffer a powerful blow. Tennis will feel the pain, too.

Priyansh is a Chevening Scholar studying the sociology of sport at Loughborough University, United Kingdom.