TI Editorial: Welcome Back, Maria Sharapova
After a 15 month suspension, Maria Sharapova returns to professional tennis tonight (it’s already the 26th in Stuttgart) at the Porsche Grand Prix.
She’ll square off against Roberta Vinci at 6:30 p.m. local time. (Sharapova over Vinci 7-5, 6-3.) This marks the end of a messy episode for the sport. As you recall, she failed a drug test at the 2016 Australian Open, testing positive for a drug known as Meldonium, which she had taken for years. There will be an inordinate amount of attention to the Porsche event this week due to her very presence.
4-26 update: match results:
It’s time to turn the page on this story. Time to move on, people. (Disclaimer right up front: I’m a Sharapova fan.)
Online critics- it’s easy to be critical behind an anonymous web name- have called her a “doper” and variants thereof. Let’s clear this up once and for all. In a recent article in The Times, author Richard Evans wrote:
The Court of Arbitration for Sport has decreed that she should not be described as a “doper” – her offense being an administrative fault rather than an attempt to gain unfair advantage.
That’s a key point. Imagine this. You take a drug for years, and your sport is OK with it. Clearly legal and above board. Then the drug is banned, effective on such and such a date. One day you can take it and it’s OK, and 24 hours later, if you take it you’re in deep trouble. And this is what happened. She was sent an email and didn’t read it. That’s an error on her part and worse, on the part of her team. An “administrative fault” in no way implies a pattern of intentional deception. Sharapova said at her press conference back in March of 2016:
It is very important for you to understand that for 10 years this medicine was not on Wada’s [World Anti-Doping Agency] banned list and I had been legally taking that medicine for the past 10 years.
So after getting a lighter suspension, one of the big stars of the sport is back in the limelight. Let’s face it, with her looks and her resume, she can still sell tickets. Marketers know this. Nike, Head, and others are still on board. It’s just good marketing (for them) that her suspension is up the same day that first round play is happening at an event she’s won before, an event where she has a relationship as a “brand ambassador” with Porsche. Timing is everything. They offered her a wildcard, and she took it. (With no ranking, that’s the only way she could enter. Madrid and Rome have done the same thing. Wimbledon? TBD.) Andy Murray disagrees with this. “I think you should really have to work your way back,” the Scot told The Times via the Herald Sun. “However, the majority of tournaments are going to do what they think is best for their event.” Murray was even critical of Head standing behind Sharapova when the story broke, and Head is his racquet sponsor, too.
The response from players has been mixed. “As Maria said, she’s ready to take full responsibility and I think that showed a lot of courage and a lot of heart,” Serena Williams was quoted as saying in The Telegraph. Victoria Azarenka and Venus Williams offered supportive remarks. “I think it’s good for tennis,” Azarenka told Omnisport via Tennisworldusa.org. “She has such a huge fan base and obviously that’s going to bring more attraction to see how she will do, so I think it’s good for tennis, good entertainment.” Venus added, “I think the bodies have made their decision, and she has an opportunity to come back and continue her career. I think she should be allowed to continue that.” She agrees with the Murray assessment that events are going to do what is in their best interest. “If people want to give her wildcards, I guess that’s the tournaments’ decision as they weigh other wildcards. It will be nice to have her back in the game.”
Aga Radwanska pulled no punches in recent comments to Poland’s sports daily Przeglad Sportowy, as reported by Reuters.
I’m not hiding my views. I think the same as Andy Murray. This kind of entry into the tournament should be available only for players who were dropped in the ranking due to injury, illness or other random accident. Not for those suspended for doping. Maria should rebuild her career in a different way, beginning with smaller events. She wouldn’t have a chance for (a wildcard) from my hands (if I was a tournament director).
Sharapova’s agent Max Eisenbud took, uh, exception to Radwanska’s comments.
With her return days away, Sharapova’s agent Max Eisenbud decided to break his silence after these comments from Radwanska. Here he goes: pic.twitter.com/WXUVxooeK5
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) April 21, 2017
Dominika Cibulkova was upset about the Porsche wildcard. “I don’t think it’s right but what can we do about it?,” she said on Daily Mail. “She’s still banned but she can come on site on Wednesday, that’s pretty strange.” (Note: incorrect. Her first round match is scheduled for today, the 26th, the date the suspension is up.) “For me it’s not OK and I spoke to some other players and nobody is OK with it, but it’s not up to us. All the people who are taking care of these things should know the rule and do the right thing.”
I’m anti-anything that’s performance-enhancing, massively against it. I’m not the one to say what [violators] should — or shouldn’t — get afterwards, but it doesn’t make sense to support people who cheat. -Nick Kyrgios on ESPN
Caroline Wozniacki was critical too, calling the Sharapova wild card entry to Stuttgart “disrespectful.” But Sunshine wasn’t finished. “As athletes, we always make sure there’s nothing in it that could put us in a bad situation,” she said in the NY Post. The Guardian reported that Martina Navratilova tweeted “seems 2 me to be an honest mistake,” while Jennifer Capriati held nothing back. “I’m extremely angry and disappointed. I had to lose my career 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 drs that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up.”
Hmmph! And you kids, get offa my lawn.
Could there be some jealousy on the part of other players? Perhaps. In the Post article, a strength coach who has worked with a top-10 player said that “[Maria] most definitely doesn’t seem to have any friends on tour.” The coach also goes on to say “She is very cold. When Maria walks into [the players’ lounge], things will stop mid-sentence. Her camp — coaches, trainers, assistants — and even [now-ex-boyfriend tennis pro] Grigor Dimitrov would be chatting with everyone, and when [Sharapova] would walk in, Grigor and her coach would make eye contact and know to stop socializing.”
Ah, but there’s more. And maybe it’s not all Sharapova’s doing. The coach added, “[Women’s tennis] is very much like high school and ‘Mean Girls,’ except there aren’t any cliques.” The Post piece theorizes that “many players look at the tour as being every woman for herself, rather than like a sorority.” Former pro Mary Joe Fernández agrees. “It’s something players cultivate to keep their edge,” she told Vogue.
Maria is still a major draw in the sport. Everyone deserves a second chance. She screwed up, took ownership, and served her time. Done. Now it’s time to let her serve the tennis balls.
*All images via Porsche.