Before I even begin to share my thoughts about Maria Sharapova’s surprise revelation about failing a drug test at the 2016 Australian Open, it’s best to first share her statement so it’s clear what I’m parsing. Here’s the former world #1, in her own words:
I am a huge Masha fan, but I have to treat her like anybody else in her situation. A person can be forgiven for reacting with skepticism when an athlete says they didn’t know they were taking a banned substance. Too many liars and cheaters have come before. Still, I’d like to maintain a case by case evaluation point of view. Sharapova has been a professional since her 14th birthday. She will be 29 on April 19th. There hasn’t been a whiff of suspicion surrounding her concerning banned substances. The drug in question, mildronate aka meldonium, was added to WADA’s banned list in January of this year. Sharapova says she has been taking this drug legally since 2006 when her doctor prescribed it in response to various ailments, including an irregular EKG and a history of family diabetes, two prime reasons this drug is used. She claims to not have realized that meldonium was the same as mildronate, the name the drug was prescribed to her as. If this is all true, then this could reasonably be seen as a mistake, a very costly mistake. Tennis has come down pretty hard on people who have failed tests. Despite her fame and stature in the sport, you can’t have rules taken seriously if penalties are not equally meted out.
Many of Masha’s contemporaries have expressed disappointment that Sharapova failed a test, but also back the notion that it was an honest mistake. Martina Navratilova, Ryan Harrison and James Blake were among those who tweeted support. Jennifer Capriati was not. She tweeted that “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”…well, ok. It really all comes down to whether you believe Masha or not…or does it? A third option exists. She could be telling the truth…and getting a competitive advantage. In addition to treating heart conditions and diabetes, meldonium has shown in some tests to help endurance. So Masha could honestly have taken this drug for her health conditions and gained an advantage in endurance. In recent years, Masha has a very good record in 3-set matches. I wonder how Garbine Muguruza, Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep feel about this. They all lost in 3 sets to Sharapova when Masha won Roland Garros 2014. Masha won the final set in those matches (quarters, semis and final) 6-1, 6-2 and 6-4. Is it possible, even if it were inadvertent, that the 5-time Major winner had a little extra in the tank going down the stretch? Might she have beaten all three of those players regardless of meldonium or not? After all, it hasn’t helped when the 3 setter was against Serena Williams.
The one truth I do know is that none of us really know. People will make up their own minds whether they believe her or not. In some cases, many cases probably, it will have less to do with what she said in her press conference and more to do with how people already felt about her. Only Masha and her doctor know for sure if this was a costly, but innocent, mistake, an attempt to get an advantage or an innocent mistake that inadvertently led to an advantage. I will say this, whenever she comes back…assuming she does come back…she wants to, no retirement here…she can’t get busted again. That’s obvious. The tennis world will by and large welcome her back. And if she continues to win…assuming she can avoid all the injuries that have stymied her in recent years…she can claim a measure of vindication. But Masha will never erase the memory of this. People who don’t like her will take every opportunity to remind the world of this. It’s too bad, but that’s the price she will pay for, at best, not being vigilant about what she put in her body or, at worst, cheating.