by The Spin Team
She took the tennis world by storm in 2004 defeating the reigning bad girl of tennis Serena Williams in 2004 to win her first Grand Slam title. She would follow up that victory at the Year End Championship by outlasting Serena in a 3 set battle. Her name: Maria Sharapova. After her victory at Wimbledon she became tennis’ marketing dream. Tall, blonde, and blue eyed. She would pick up where another Russian, Anna Kournikova, had left off but only better. This tall blonde actually won singles titles.
A fierce competitor, Sharapova would become the player that tennis fans love to hate to love. A conundrum for most tennis fans and media types. She was unapologetic about her game, herself, her shrieks of delight, her howls of protest. There were calls to ban her. Calls to have her matches shoved onto outside courts. As she once said in a press conference “no one of importance has told me to stop shrieking”.
Sharapova has called a press conference for 3:00 p.m. EST, (12 p.m. PST). No one knows the reason behind the media conference, but speculation is rife that this could be an announcement of a retirement from the game.
In 2007 Sharapova suffered what would then be her most shocking defeat at a Grand Slam. She lost 1 & 2 to Serena Williams at the Australian Open. At the time it was opined that she was suffering from shoulder issues which affected her serve. In Miami of that same year she was again beaten by Serena 1 & 1. The issue regarding her shoulder was again discussed. After a dismal 2007 season, Sharapova, as she has done so many times in her career came back to win the Australian Open in 2008, beating Ana Ivanovic in straight sets. That match was the turning point in what became a long and arduous journey back to the top of the game. After losing to Serena in Charleston that year, Sharapova took some time off to have surgery on a torn rotator cuff. She would be out of the game for an extended period of time, returning in early 2009. Her serve, while not as potent as Serena’s was a weapon that could be used to get her out of trouble.
Her matches were a train wreck, but despite that, Sharapova would step up to the line and with grit and determination win matches she should have lost and lost matches she should have won. She persevered. She battled. She overcame and in 2012, 4 years after her last Grand Slam win, Sharapova won on a surface on which she described herself as a “cow on ice” by winning the French Open. It was a comeback to for the ages.
The serve was still a liability under tough conditions but no one ever doubted the desire of one of the world’s richest woman in terms of her ability to fight when the chips are down and her ability to stay in the moment regardless of the score line. Her biggest rival once said “I never count her out. She won that one game and you could see her pumping her fist”.
Sharapova’s mental efforts are legendary and while some will say that if she was so mentally tough how come she hasn’t figured out Serena, well then, the same could be said of the rivalry between Federer and Nadal. Despite having a losing head to head against Nadal, Federer always answered the bell when it came time to meet. In terms of Serena, Sharapova always answered the bell and always came out thinking she had a chance.
Sharapova’s habits have been adopted by many players. Her slow walk to the back of the court, the brushing away of the wisps of hair, the look to her opponent, deep breaths and the steady bounce bounce of the ball before serving were her ways of getting herself mentally prepared. I for one have always admired one aspect of Sharapova’s game and that was her ability to hit the ball as hard and as flat as she did, finding the lines at every given opportunity and never missing. The small curled fist at her side and the slapping of her thighs to get herself into a match were always signs that she was engaged. Her comments after a loss were always complimentary towards an opponent but also reflective of the reasons for a loss.
She was tennis’ bad girl. She wore that like a badge of honour. Which other player on the WTA would call out Serena Williams for having an affair with a married man? Which other player would show absolutely no hesitation in speaking about the fact that she was not interested in having friends on Tour? Was she given a pass by the tennis media? Of course she was. Is she beloved by tennis fans? I don’t think Sharapova would care one way or another whether fans loved her or not. After all, this is the same player who stood her ground on Court Phillipe Chartrier and told tennis fans “Allez up your fucking ass”.
If today is her goodbye, as a fan of the women’s game and an admirer of Sharapova, I have to say that she will be missed. She has been a stalwart of the Tour for many years and I am hopeful that if she leaves the Tour that she will make herself available to the Tour as an ambassador for young girls not only in her native Russia but worldwide.
So that sound you hear is my pen screeching to a halt and me hitting CTR+END+DELETE to delete everything that I said above.
I hate flu season. I really do. I hate flu season because there are so many drugs that I am prohibited from taking because I not only suffer from hypertension and am on medication but I also suffer from sleep apnea. As a result I can’t take medication that induces drowsiness (there goes my Vicks Nyquil) and I can’t take anything that has aspirin because it will spike my blood pressure. As a result whenever I have the flu I either have to ride it out with home made remedies or I have to get my doctor to prescribe something that will not raise my blood pressure or will not knock me out to the point that if I have a sleep apnea attack I die in my sleep. That is just for me personally.
I therefore can’t understand how an elite athlete along the lines of Sharapova with a cadre of doctors, physiotherapists, publicists etc has allowed this to happen to her. Surely the doctor(s) who prescribed this medication would have been aware of the WADA ruling in October 2015 (published in its entirety below) which indicated that this drug that he/she has been prescribing for Sharapova for the past 10 years was now on the list of prohibited substances.
As most of you will by now have heard, Maria Sharapova announced today that she had failed a drug test at this year’s Australian Open. She stated that for the past 10 years she had been taking the drug Meldonium, a drug used to treat patients with heart problems. One of the benefits of this drug is increased endurance and so there are quite a few athletes (according to the internet) who take this drug as it was not a banned substance. The same held true for Sharapova who indicated that she had been taking the drug on the advice of her doctors as she had a family history of heart disease and diabetes (we will not say anything further on the whole Sugarpova thing).
The Spin team like many of you are without a doubt shocked at this and the tennis community is for want of a better word beside itself in trying to explain how an athlete of the caliber of Sharapova could have found herself in this situation. Ms. Sharapova has indictated that in December when the list of banned substances was published by WADA, neither she or any member of her team noticed the inclusion of Meldonium amongst the list of banned substances. As a result she continued to take the drug and this led to her returning a positive test for the drug.
Apart from the shock that has accompanied this announcement there has been a certain amount of deifying of Sharapova with many players, media types, fans and commentators expressing the view that Sharapova being a hard worker for so long it is inconceivable that she willingly took a drug knowing that it was a banned substance. My only wish is that the commentators listened attentively to Sharapova’s press conference as not only did she take responsibility for her actions, she is ready to accept the consequences of those actions. It would do folks well to take a leaf from Sharapova’s playbook.
In looking up Meldonium and seeing its effects, one can’t help but talk about the endurance factor. Many will recall that in 2013-2014 Sharapova was anointed the queen of 3 set matches as she would outlast opponents who were more fleet of foot and she did this on what used to be her worst surface. It is instructive that her endurance, and stamina came about in 2006. If you are a skeptic you will immediately say that she started to reap the benefits of the drug. If you believe that the gains she made are attributable to hard work and dedication you would also not be wrong.
However, while many will be wringing their hands and wondering what happens to Sharapova next, how about we pause for a minute and think about our sport. Sharapova is without a doubt one of the biggest names in tennis. Every month we are bombarded with information from her uber agent, Max Eisenbud in which he tells us that his client is the highest earning female athlete.
The urge to deify Sharapova by many has made folks miss the point in all of this. The sport, just not long out of the headlines concerning match fixing has now found its way into the consciousness of many persons, some not even affiliated with tennis, by having one of its biggest stars test positive for a doping violation. However, to read the tweets from persons who should know better has me wondering which is more important, the so called stars of the sport or the sport itself.
As more and more information is revealed by journalists and tennis fans alike, the excuse that Sharapova unwittingly took a drug that she did not know was banned becomes murky.
Below is an article that was circulated by WADA and dated 22 October 2015. I am reprinting the article in its entirety in order not to misquote any part of it. It would seem as if this particular drug had been in WADA’s radar for quite sometime and the release below indicates that this was sent out worldwide so that all athletes and their partners could become aware of it.
Thursday, October 22, 2015
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 22, 2015
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – When the 2016 WADA Prohibited List of performance enhancing substances and methods was released earlier this month, mildronate (meldonium) was a notable new addition to the list. Earlier this year, a special research project funded, in part, by the Partnership for Clean Competition, was tasked with evaluating global athlete usage of mildronate, which was not previously prohibited, to determine if the rates of use indicated any potential performance-enhancing concerns. Analysis of 8,300 random, anonymous urine samples collected at doping control sessions revealed that 182 (2.2%) contained the energy-shifting drug mildronate, a substance first discovered and used in the 1980s as a cardioprotective agent.
“From an anti-doping perspective, the 2.2% rate in this study was concerning,” said Dr. Larry Bowers, Chairperson of the PCC Scientific Board, “This figure represents more than twice the overall rate of laboratory findings for a single drug than any of the substances on the Prohibited List.”
While mildronate was not on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Prohibited List at the time of the study, it was included in the WADA substance monitoring program in order to assess its prevalence and misuse in sport. The results of the special research project were provided to WADA as part of the monitoring program.
“This project shows both the impact of our work and the quality of the PCC funding process. A substance with this high a prevalence needs to be identified quickly through a flexible research funding process. Thankfully, we were able to respond to a potential situation within weeks and the results were known less than one month later,” said Michael Pearlmutter, Executive Director of the PCC.
This special research project was conducted by five scientists led by Dr. Mario Thevis, who reviewed and tested thousands of urine samples stored at the WADA lab in Cologne, Germany in order to identify how many athletes may be using the substance for its potential performance-enhancing characteristics rather than its intended medical purpose. The study results showed that the use of mildronate was not limited to a particular sport or group of sports, but was found in a wide range of samples.
The results of this study suggested that further action was warranted to protect the rights of clean athletes around the world. The study concluded, “Due to the growing body of evidence (black market products and athletes’ statements) concerning its misuse in sport, adequate test methods for the reliable identification of mildronate are required, especially since the substance has been added to the 2015 World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) monitoring program.”
By adding mildronate to the 2016 Prohibited List, WADA has taken the steps necessary to protect clean athletes and guard them against any competitors who may choose to cheat by misusing this substance.
It surely cannot be the case that Sharapova with all the staff at her disposal, including uber agent, Max Eisenbud must have been aware of not only the dangers of this drug, but also the fact that it had now found its way to WADA’s list of banned substances? If it is the case that no one on her team read the list of banned substances or showed it to her doctors, then heads should roll for this.
However, while we are still wringing our hands and wondering what will happen to poor Sharapova, how about we spare a thought for those players who lost out to her at this year’s Australian Open. I am sure that somewhere Hbino, Sasnovich, Davis and Bencic are wondering whether they have a cause of action against Sharapova.for denying them the opportunity to go further at this year’s Australian Open.
Finally, am I the only person who thought on an occassion as solemn as announcing that you have failed a drug test that you take the opportunity to be critical of the hotel carpeting. Am I also the only one who thinks that the ITF allowed Sharapova and her team to announce the failed drug test in a way that mitigates the damage to her image? One has to wonder just how serious the ITF takes its anti-doping situation. As one would expect there is speculation as to whether Sharapova’s withdrawal from this week’s BNP Paribas Open was due to the failed drug test or due to the injury.
The time has come for tennis and its governing bodies to seriously take stock of the sport. In January during the year’s first Major, news broke about match fixing allegations, which happened at the Grand Slam level. The names of top players were called and there were denials, denials and more denials from tennis’ governing bodies. In addition, there have been allegations of cover ups of doping violations. One only has to reference the Marin Cilic situation where he cited an imaginary injury as the reason for withdrawing from Wimbledon, only for the public to find out that he had been provisionally banned. His defence was that his mother bought the wrong mediation.
We also turn to Victor Troicki, another ATP player who was sanctioned for failing to give a blood test. His excuse was that he was allergic to needles. He has been defended at every opportunity by the ATP World No. 1, Novak Djokovic. At some point, tennis needs to take a look in the mirror if it wants to be taken seriously in terms of anti-doping.
I am sure as the days and weeks go on, we will either have more about Sharapova’s doping violation. As far as I have read, it would seem that she could either get a 4 year ban, or a 2 year ban. There is always the Court for Arbitration for Sport and she can no doubt appeal any ban that she may get.
It is a dark day for the sport and for women’s tennis in general. One can only hope that the sport will recover at some point.