I was stunned when Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004 at 17 years old. I watched her topple fifth seed Lindsay Davenport and later take down defending champion Serena Williams in the final. After that slam, my nine-year-old self had a new hero.
Sharapova’s career has had its fair share of ups and downs. She’s overcome three shoulder injuries, a subsequent shoulder surgery and a forearm injury, which have made it difficult for her to stay in the top 10.
While Sharapova definitely faced challenges on the court, off the court she has flourished. She raked in endorsement deals from Porsche, Nike, Cole Haan and others that have made her more than $20 million, putting her second behind Williams as the highest paid female athlete. Not to mention she started her own candy line, Sugarpova, whose partial proceeds support children from her hometown of Belarus.
I admire Sharapova’s play and her ventures outside of tennis. Growing up, she represented who I wanted to be. But then I found out about the recent doping scandal and my ideal image of her slightly shattered.
At the beginning of the 2016 season, Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, a drug the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) recently banned. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) initially suspended the Russian superstar for two years but that ruling has since changed. After Sharapova appealed the decision, the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced her punishment to 15 months, allowing her to rejoin the WTA in time for the 2017 French Open.
Sharapova said she took meldonium for 10 years before it was banned to control health problems, including magnesium deficiency and the onset of diabetes. She also claimed that the ITF didn’t adequately inform her about the drug’s addition to the banned list, causing her agent Max Eisenbud to overlook the change.
Since the decrease in sentencing, Sharapova has come out offensively, attacking the ITF. In her public statement last Tuesday, she said, “The delegation that the I.T.F. had with the WTA on checking what lists and emails were going out and who was actually receiving these notices– was it players, agents, their doctors–they had no system in place.”
Although the previous world No. 1 will be back on the pro circuit, her time off has significantly damaged her ranking. She currently sits 95th in the world, which won’t automatically qualify her for majors. Instead Sharapova will have to compete for wild card entries.
Some fellow WTA players are angry Sharapova’s punishment was reduced and stand by the initial two-year ban. Australian Samantha Stosur commented during an interview with Tennis Magazine, arguing, “It really sets a bad precedence for athletes moving forward, where you can almost put your hands up and say it was not my fault.”
Sharapova may not have intentionally broken the doping rules but she didn’t follow them either. It might not be fair to use her as an example but Stosur is right in that the overturn doesn’t give the ITF any clout for future similar cases.
Yes, the ITF and the WADA need to improve how they communicate with players about changes in the banned substance list, but regardless of that, Sharapova should have recognized the change. It’s a part of her job as a professional athlete to hold herself accountable.
Though I respect Sharapova’s undeniable talent on and off the court, it was disappointing to see my childhood idol act so carelessly. To me, her true test of character will be shown in how she handles coming back to the WTA. Hopefully she’ll make amends with the ITF and be the upstanding individual I’ve admired so much.