Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images/AFP
Maria Sharapova had the sporting world on its toes. She called a press conference for a "major announcement" in downtown Los Angeles at 8 pm GMT (1:30 am IST) on 7 March. The rumour mill began saying everything from pregnancy to retirement to a new endorsement or even a product launch.
But when 28-year-old Sharapova stepped out in all black onto a quiet stage, no one saw what was coming.
"I let my fans down, I let the sport down that I have been playing since the age of four and I love so deeply. I know with this I face consequences and I don't want to end my career this way and I really hope I will be given another chance to play this game," Sharapova told a stunned audience.
The front page of the Metro showed what the situation really was. It read, Sharadopa.
Sharapova announced that on March 2, she was provisionally suspended from tennis. She went on to reveal that she had tested positive at the Australian Open for a drug that entered the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) banned list on 1 January, 2016. The drug in question, meldonium, was used by Sharapova ever since 2006 when her doctors prescribed it to her purely for health reasons.
Sharapova had been using the drug, known to her as mildronate, to deal with issues such as irregular heartbeat and a history of diabetes in her family.
She provided the anti-doping sample to the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (TADP) on 26 January, the day she lost in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, to world number one Serena Williams.
"For the past 10 years I have been given a medicine called mildronate by my family doctor and a few days ago after I received the ITF letter I found out that it also has another name of meldonium which I did not know. It is very important for you to understand that for 10 years this medicine was not on Wada's banned list and I had legally been taking it for the past 10 years. But on 1 January the rules had changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance - which I had not known. I failed the test and I take full responsibility for it. I made a huge mistake," she continued.
Perhaps most to her credit: despite the seriousness of the situation and the impending suspension, she came across as a confident woman conscious of what she has been accused of, as well as its consequences.
She even managed some lighthearted humour, "If I was ever going to announce my retirement, it probably wouldn't be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet".
Many from the tennis fraternity have rallied behind her saying things like "honest mistake" and "hope it gets cleared up soon".
Not Nike. One of her biggest sponsors, the brand has suspended its relationship with the tennis icon pending the conclusion of the investigation. "We are saddened and surprised by the news about Maria Sharapova," the Nike statement read. Porsche suspended further activities and TAG Heuer said it won't renew the contract with her.
Sharapova deserves our admiration - what she has done is unprecedented and will hopefully set the tone for other top athletes. She did not hide behind anything or anyone. Most athletes, especially those at Sharapova's level, hide positive results for performance-enhancing drugs and wait until the suspension is made public before starting damage control.
In taking the stage, she showed not just responsibility but integrity. In the process, she also lent credence to her own defence - though the final call on that will come from governing authorities.
According to The Guardian, "meldonium was developed years ago in Latvia to treat patients with heart conditions brought on by a lack of oxygen in their blood. It has become popular with athletes who use the oxygen-enhancers to improve endurance, especially when working out".
Meldonium was banned on January 1 this year, and already multiple athletes have tested positive for it - Russian cyclist Eduard Vorganov, ice dancer Ekaterina Bobroya, Ethiopian marathon runner Endeshaw Negesse, Ukrainian biathletes Artem Tyshchenko and Olga Abramova, and two others.
For two reasons.
First, Sharapova has been taking the drug for ten years now, on medical advice, long before it became illegal in sport.
Second, her dosage of the drug is far lower than other athletes who use it for performance-enhancing purposes, says her lawyer.
Sure the drug wasn't approved for usage in the US by the Food and Drug Administration but it has a proven track record on the health front. "She took it on a regular basis as recommended by her doctor. He told her what to take and when to take it, and then continued to test her and confirm that it was giving her the desired improved medical condition," John Haggerty, Sharapova's lawyer said.
What happens next?
On March 12, Sharapova will be provisionally suspended. Her actual penalty is yet to be decided. The range of punishments that come with this offence are a minimum sanction and a let-off, all the way up to a four-year ban from the sport.
WADA's 2015 code had increased the minimum ban for 'deliberate cheating' but Sharapova could legitimately argue that she had been 'doping unintentionally' and was not at fault. If that is proven, the suspension could be as low as one year.
There's precedent for that. Fellow tennis player Marian Cilic saw a ban back in 2013 for a doping violation. Originally suspended for nine months, his sentence was reduced because it was proven that he had inadvertently ingested the substance. In 2015, Kateryna Kozlova from Ukraine was given a reduced suspension because the International Tennis Federation found no fault.
Sharapova could now appeal for a retroactive therapeutic use exemption (TUE). If successful, this would allow for the athlete in question to use the banned drug for their medical condition, without committing any doping-violations. Haggerty confirmed to the press that they will be arguing for a heavily reduced sentence.
Sharapova claims she was unaware that the drug had been banned.
"I received an email on December 22 from WADA about the changes happening to the banned list and you can see prohibited items - and I didn't click on that link," said Sharapova at the press conference, admitting she had made a huge mistake.
That her extensive support staff of includes coaches, doctors, physiotherapists, an agent and a lawyer didn't track this information also goes against her. The other charge she will have to tackle is that she has been a resident of Florida for two years - and the drug is not approved for use in the United States.
In the end, what it could boil down to is whether the ITF wants to demonstrate its committed to the cause of making the sport clean - especially in the aftermath of damaging match-fixing allegations at the Australian Open back in January. How they handle Sharapova's case will go a long way in deciding the reputation of the federation going forward.
Despite a glamorous career off the tennis court, that Sharapova wants to fight on and continue playing tennis at the highest level shows her tenacity and commitment to the game. That she took the onus of sharing the information herself shows respect for both audiences and her professional endorsements - she has $20 million in endorsements resting on her name. Losing those, as well as her world number seven status, could crush any athlete.
The fact that she's taking the bull by the horns and confronting her mistakes might not be enough to prevent a ban - but it may cement her position as the modern athlete we can all respect.
Edited by Payal Puri
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