In the game of tennis, sportsmanship–gracious winning or losing–is a prized trait in addition to superior athletic abilities. Tennis players and fans do not crave brutality. So what a sad day it was when Maria Sharapova admitted that she had tested positive for a banned substance in her blood during the Australian Open. Doping of athletes for enhanced performance is nothing new and has certainly made headlines often over the past decade–but not in tennis!
This sad news about a top player who has been doping also comes amidst recent allegations in the professional tennis world of “match fixing.” The importance of the development of any sign of sleaze in tennis cannot be over-emphasized. Tennis has become a big business. The sport over the past decade has exploded in popularity. Big dollars have entered the arena of the tennis world. The top players garner not only considerable prize money but also cash on commercial endorsements that often exceed their annual earning of tournament purse money.
Fans flock to tournaments paying handsomely for tickets, sports merchandise and many travel the world to watch the stars. Stores, hotels, restaurants, major cities all want these tournaments and benefit economically from the world of tennis. Sharapova was not only endorsed handsomely by Nike and HEAD, but also by Porsche, TAG Heuer, Avon cosmetics and Evian bottled water to name a few. Her annual endorsements totaled well over $25 million annually for the past 10 years.
Many a fan enjoyed watching the Russian beauty demonstrate her skills on the court. Maria not only sold tickets, but TV air time and a wide array of commercial products. She has been described as a marketing dream, and she seemed to have it all. Not only is Maria conventionally attractive, but at the age of 28, she has also won five Grand Slams. She always appears gracious on and off the court. So yes, she had it all: athletic ability beyond the capability of most, beauty, and a gracious style. For all of these qualities she has been rewarded handsomely for it all with great wealth and a fan base that adored her.
So why would anyone in this elevated position take such a risk and continue to take Meldonium, a substance on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) watch list for about two years while under study for performance enhancement and at the beginning of 2016 a banned substance? According to Sharapova’s public admission of using the drug, she said that her Russian family doctor (Maria has lived in the United States for many, many years) had urged her to take the drug (manufactured in Latvia) due to abnormal electrocardiogram readings and some diabetic indicators. Meldonium is banned in Western European countries and in the United States. It is not banned in Eastern European countries. WADA banned the substance after study because it has been shown to aid athletes by improving their performance and ability to recover faster from strenuous exercise. The Latvian company that manufactures Meldonium says the normal course of treatment is only four to six weeks. Maria has admitted taking the substance for over 10 years. In addition, she admitted to receiving emails from WADA stating the substance was under study and that in December of 2015, she did receive the warning that its use would be banned beginning in 2016. However, she says she did not review the email thoroughly and missed the upcoming status change for 2016.
Many other tennis professionals have criticized her for using the performance-enhancing drug. Many have scoffed at the idea that her extensive training team and coaching staff missed the emailed information as well. Certainly this topic of banned substances is discussed often in all professional sports circles. It is also hard to believe that anyone with a serious heart condition or any medical condition could continue to play professional tennis year after year for 10 years, travel the world and train all year long, all the while conducting a full-time endorsement business of some of the most prestigious brands in the world. Maria certainly was able to maintain a strenuous schedule both on and off the court.
So all of this may add up to the fact that Maria Sharapova took the performance-enhancing drug to improve and to cash in on her potential earnings both on and off the court. However, it is also possible that she took the drug at the urging of her professional support team. After all, without a champion to coach and coddle, their jobs would be in jeopardy. Sadly, the fact that Maria felt she needed to enhance her performance at all might also speak to a weakness of self-doubting in a prized athlete and also the pressures at the top of the game.
What will really be interesting to see is how the WTA will investigate her case. Maria has a lawyer defending her so that she is not banned from the court for a long period of time. Reportedly, she could be suspended up to the full four years. This would mean that she would be unable to play professional tennis again until she turns 32 years of age. Her tennis career and lucrative endorsements would effectively come to an end. There is also the question of her major titles and whether they should be stripped from her under these circumstances. But also, the WTA would lose a highly popular female tennis star. The WTA and all of its affiliates make money off of the Sharapova name and brand too. In addition, Maria is still set to play for Russia in the upcoming summer Olympics. There will likely be a huge push from many directions to hold her penalty to a short time frame–maybe even only a few months.
It will be interesting to see if tennis will survive the world of the big business of sports enterprises with tennis becoming much like football and the NFL. Maybe all professional sports have succumbed to the pressures from all around to achieve economic success. Maybe professional sports has become just another entertainment venue.