Sharapova’s Suspension Hurts Tennis. How Will It Cope?

March 15, 2016 — Maria Sharapova failed a routine drug test in January and was suspended from tennis Saturday. As a result, the day won’t be remembered for a player’s or teams' achievement in tennis or the fact that the so-called fifth Grand Slam was gearing up in Indian Wells, Calif. Instead, the memory will be blemished by the unbecoming side of sport … doping. 

Her shocking admission that she had taken the prohibited substance meldonium wasn’t what tennis needed now, or at any time either, as it investigates and battles accusations about match fixing. 

Where does this leave tennis? 

The honorable game is a non-combative sport. No one’s throwing punches, pushing or tackling opponents and being helped off court due to a concussion. These messy circumstances are normally discussed in the context of baseball, football, soccer, boxing, or horse racing … not the jockeys, the horses. Tennis, instead, is a gentleman’s game. 

“I received a letter from the ITF [International Tennis Federation] a few days ago that I had failed a drug test,” Sharapova said on March 7, and reported by DownTheTee.com, relaying the news from the governing body. “I take full responsibility for it.”

Even though Sharapova seemed contrite and sincere in her plea for another chance at the game she’s been playing for 25 years, the incident has gained ground. 

A couple days ago the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) reported that an additional 99 athletes had tested positive for meldonium, since the beginning of the year. It’s the same ‘medication,’ as Sharapova couched it, she was caught using. Interesting to note meldonium is only produced in Latvia by the pharmaceutical company Grinders, is only distributed in a handful of Eastern European countries, and is not approved by the Federal Drug Administration of the United States. 

We, the entire human race and, as an extension, history, tend to remember bad stuff. Tennis will remember the Sharapova scandal as a big blemish on its oh-so-white togs. Tennis commentator Pam Shriver spoke with ESPN the day the richest woman in sport made her announcement, saying that Sharapova’s story could the biggest one of the year for tennis. That’s quite a declaration. 

To make matters worse, Sharapova was swiftly dismissed (provisionally) by Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche, three companies that have endorsed the statuesque Russian for years. Today, the United Nations Development Programme discontinued its relationship with her as its goodwill ambassador after a nine-year association. Head/Penn Racquet Sports, her racquet sponsor, has stuck by Sharapova, though.

The topic of cheating is currently as bright as the North star on a clear night. Everyone’s following it. Players are being asked question after question. 

Rafael Nadal is spitting mad about a statement made by Roselyn Bachelot on the French show “Le Grand 8.” 

“They just don’t reveal positive tests of the sanctions given in tennis,” Bachelot said, The New York Times reported. “But curiously, you will learn that a tennis player had an injury that keeps him or her off the courts for months, like the famous injury of Rafael Nadal that kept him off the court for seven months — it’s very certainly due to a positive test.”

Nadal has heard this type of slander in the past, but was quick with a pointed response this time. “This is going to be the last one because I’m going to sue her,” he said in the same article. “I am tired about these things. I let it go a few times in the past. No more.” He wasn’t finished, threatening to sue anyone who suggested the same. 

Nadal has never failed a drug test, as far as we know. Neither had Sharapova. But the perception is damaging to them, as high-profile ambassadors of the game, to them as elite athletes, and to tennis. 

Lots of tennis viewers would rather do anything than watch a Sharapova match. Her screeching irritates beyond words. She doesn’t care that she irritates and has made a point of saying just that to the media. She’s done it all her life and, well, can’t stop. Add the failed drug test and Maria’s brand sinks even farther, dragging tennis along for the ride. 

With 24/7 news, multiple social media platforms, and a slice of public always thirsty for news that undercuts and skewers those in the limelight, for whatever reasons, the saga of Sharapova will stick on tennis, the way red clay clings to socks. Too bad we can’t throw away the doping accusations, the cheating, like a pair of dirty socks. 

Many would like to believe Sharapova and have the charges wiped from her record. It could happen. There is precedent. If lawyers can show that she used meldonium — or, mildronate, as she knew it — for a period of time for medical reasons, then she could be exonerated. Her doctors did prescribe it, beginning in 2006, after several irregular EKG results, a deficiency in magnesium was discovered, and a family history of diabetes lingered in her medical records. 

If Sharapova had ulterior motives for taking meldonium, then shame on her. But why go there? To win bigger and better prizes? To earn more endorsement dollars? To prove to herself that she’s the best, better than them. She hasn’t beaten Serena Williams in 12 years, the only person she really has to prove herself against. That angle just doesn’t make sense. 

But this is not the point. She erred. Admitted it publicly and ignited a flame that won’t soon go out. How tennis maneuvers itself will either set it above the fray or paint it with an aura that will change the sport. Winning isn’t everything. Players should know this by now.

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013