I came to tennis relatively late in my childhood, so one of my strongest early tennis memories is a teenage Maria Sharapova’s stunning upset win over Serena Williams in the 2004 Wimbledon final. Years later I got to see her in action at the 2009 Aegon Classic as she was on the comeback trail from shoulder surgery (pictured). Overnight that 2004 Wimbledon triumph turned the 17 year old into a crossover star only rivalled in women’s tennis by the Williams sisters and out-earning both of them in the endorsement race. The Sharapova corporate brand earned an estimated $30 million in 2015 when she topped Forbes list of highest-earning female athletes for the 11th straight year.
Always perceived as one of the most professional and controlled athletes in the world, Sharapova has an entourage of physio’s and assistants to help keep the Sharapova express on the road. All of which makes it all the more astonishing that ‘Team Sharapova’ apparently failed to notice repeated warnings from the World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) that meldonium was going to be officially banned for use by professional athletes from 1st January 2016. Meldonium was on WADA’s official watch-list throughout 2015 after growing doubts that it was being used by athletes to increase endurance and aid oxygen intake. Sharapova, who although permanently based in the US, went to Russia to gain access to the drug and had been using it for 10 years, despite the normal treatment course being 4-6 weeks. Ultimately meldonium was legal until 1/1/2016 and athletes, particularly rich and successful stars with a team of doctors to assist them, will always seek all the legal ways to gain a slight advantage over their competitors.
Since the news broke on Monday at a downtown LA hotel with, in Sharapova’s words “a fairly ugly carpet” as she sought to inject humour into the situation, tennis has been blindsided. Many stars and the WTA itself have spoken of their shock, but also of their respect for Sharapova, and the term ‘a sad day for tennis’ has been used repeatedly. It may be a sad day for Sharapova but it is actually a very good day for tennis, for years rumours of a weak system of doping oversight and ‘silent bans’ for stars has plagued the sport. When top 50 players were caught and banned the retort was always, “yeah, but if they caught a really big star do you really think they’d do anything about it other than try to hush it up?” Now we know the answer to that question.
There is no bigger star than Sharapova in women’s tennis and her downfall proves the system works, doping violators are caught and she will face a to-be-determined punishment. For the sake of tennis’s integrity it’s important that her ban is seen to be fair, there are some mitigating circumstances that could see a reduction below the likely starting point of 2 years she faces, but having failed to follow doping rules must be seen to cost her heavily in enforced time away from the court.
Having trust in your sport is key to any fan, until this week many tennis fans had a slight doubt at the back of their minds about just how ‘clean’ tennis was, similar doubts were raised by the recent match-fixing allegations, although nobody seriously considers that issue to effect the very top of the game. Now tennis fans know they are watching a clean sport where doping violators, however commercially important to the sport, will be stopped. Now we can just go back to enjoying tennis, as Sunday’s epic Davis Cup match between Nishikori and Murray showed, with gladiatorial combat and a scoring system built for tension, there is no greater sport than the game of tennis.