It is an easy conclusion to draw, classifying every athlete found guilty of doping as a cheat, who probably shouldn’t be welcomed back into their sport even after a ban is spent. It is even easier; to forever thereafter furrow your brow at the mere mention of the athlete’s name.
Much harder, is to delineate between the cheat – Lance Armstrong is the exemplar – and the athlete who may have broken the same rules, but very differently.
The return of the prodigal daughter
Maria Sharapova has returned to the WTA rankings at No 262 after reaching the semi-finals of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix last week. The Russian was a wild card entry for the tournament as she marked her return to competitive tennis following a positive test for meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open. Sharapova was handed a two-year ban which was reduced to 15 months on appeal.
Sharapova’s invite to the competition proved controversial with her peers, as has the decision to award her wild cards for the upcoming Madrid and Italian Opens. If she had reached the final in Stuttgart, Sharapova would have earned a place in the qualifying tournament for the French Open but instead lost in the Semi Finals.
She has already made a comeback of sorts but if she gets a wildcard in the Wimbeldon as some of her peers want, it would be one of the most iconic moments in Tennis History. Everyone is hoping that the five-time grand slam champion and Olympic medallist Maria Sharapova will stroll back onto the stage, returning from a forced exile.
As distinct from the vast majority of athletes subjected to the ignominy of being found to have breached a sport’s anti-doping rules – whether by accident, negligence or nefarious intent – Sharapova’s ban from the sport seems to have caused insignificant damage. Once endorsements aggregating out at $27 million are factored in, Sharapova ranks behind only Serena Williams on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s highest-earning female athletes to June 2016. The 2017 edition will tell no worse a story.
Global brands including Nike and Porsche have stayed loyal, despite suspending their contracts to some extent during Sharapova’s ban (the Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer did axe Sharapova). Further, Sharapova has evidently worked mighty hard on her semi-eponymous line of confectionery; and in indulging in what all the beautiful people of California might do to while away the days, living in a castle made of money.
In her 15 months of suspension, she did everything to stay relevant and in the limelight — from attending an Oscar Awards party to studying at Harvard University. Sharapova did a flurry of appearances for her brand Sugarpova, appeared on an American talk show, went to the Coachella music festival, holidayed in the exotic island of Hawaii and even penned her autobiography — all the while ensuring that every moment was documented and shared on her social media platforms.
Sharapova may have been banned from the WTA tour, but she made sure she wasn’t out of people’s sight. And her off-court activities were peppered with regular updates of her training and practicing, almost suggesting that she was on a break from tennis but raring to come back.
Done to dust? Not so much.
Her PR machinery went into overdrive in the months leading up to her return to tennis. Maria Sharapova gave an extensive interview to Vogue, which highlighted her tea drinking habits, her reading list and her dating life. Two weeks before her first match at the Porsche Grand Prix, she was on the cover of four different magazines, including the Time Magazine UK.
In all her interviews, the recently turned 30-year-old emphasised on ITF’s lack of warning and maintained she had made an honest mistake. Sharapova isn’t just one of the best female athletes of this era, she is also the highest paid one, with more brands and endorsements than any of her peers. And her carefully-constructed persona over the last 15 months have helped her retain her biggest sponsors.
But not everyone has been swept away by the narrative that the Sharapova camp tried to dictate. Most of her fellow players have been extremely vocal in their disdain for all the wildcards that the Russian has received, smoothening the path of her return to tennis. Following Stuttgart’s example, clay court tournaments in Madrid and Rome also welcomed her back with wildcards to the main draw. Roland Garros, the second slam of the year, declared they would announce their decision regarding her wildcard on 16 May, on a Facebook Live stream, no less.
However, while her opponents may not approve of all the wildcards gifted to her, Sharapova is well within her rights to demand as many as she likes. A decade-old WTA rule enables a Grand Slam and WTA finals champion to ask for unlimited wildcards. There is no precedent set for a champion returning from a doping suspension, so the wildcards given to Sharapova are fair and reasonable.
What makes Sharapova’s case even stronger is World Anti-Doping Agency’s (Wada) inconsistent and chaotic implementation of the ban on the drug. There is still no definite proof to suggest that the drug enhances a player’s performance and Sharapova remains as one of the relative few athletes to be suspended for its use. Wada also released an ambiguous statement regarding how long the drug stays in a human body, inflicting further damage to their shaky reputation.
Furthermore, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) reduced the initial two-year suspension to 15 months on the grounds that Sharapova was guilty of negligence, but wasn’t an “intentional doper”. CAS also asserted that anti-doping agencies should have provided clearer notice to athletes. Now that Sharapova has served her time, she deserves a fair shot at resuming her career.
The Russian couldn’t have picked a more favourable time for her return to the tour. The first few tournaments she will play are on her late-career favourite — clay courts.
Sharapova’s nemesis Serena Williams is out for the 2017 season due to her pregnancy, and her other potential rival Victoria Azarenka isn’t expected to make her return after giving birth before late July. Two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova is out due to a wrist surgery while Angelique Kerber, who held the World No 1 ranking till last week, hasn’t won a title in 2017 and is struggling with her form.
Sharapova isn’t going to have an easy time post-Stuttgart, and she will have to quickly become match fit if she harbours any ambitions of a swift climb up the rankings. She hasn’t played a proper match in the last 15 months, and the WTA boasts a handful of talented teenagers who are more than capable of handing the 30-year-old shock defeats.
But if Sharapova’s career is anything to go by, she must be relishing these new challenges and will be hungry to prove her point. Her training videos over the past year indicate that she is fit and raring to go.
The French Open and Wimbledon can afford to take a self-serving stand because they’re not dependent on names to sell tickets. Other tournaments aren’t so lucky. They need stars and, right now, Maria Sharapova is the biggest one they’ve got. To complain about this, as her peers have done, spits in the eye of the capitalistic enterprise that has made them millionaires. What other sport suspends players and then doesn’t let them back at the top level of the game? A baseball player gets kicked out for 50 games and he’s allowed to come back to his Major League team immediately. A football player sits four games for PEDs and doesn’t have to go play in a sandlot league in Ohio upon his return. The punishment is sitting out, not getting pushed down the ladder upon your return.
People in the middle of the argument say Sharapova should go halfway and only accept wild cards into qualifying, thus ensuring she’d have to earn her way into the main draw. This would win her goodwill, it’s argued. And maybe that’s the fairer path but isn’t a wild card into the qualification round just as unfair as the qualification into the main tournament? She didn’t earn either, right?
Billie Jean King, otherwise such an admirable figure, has been a particular supporter, inviting her to play in a charity exhibition with John McEnroe and Martina Navratilova, in the middle of the ban. Only this month the official Twitter feed of the US Open was enthusing about her imminent return, as if she had done nothing more than suffer an injury.
And the show must go on
Stuttgart marked the start of three wildcard appearances – the others will be at the Madrid and Italian Opens – with debate raging about whether doping cheats should be allowed a leg-up on their return. Wimbledon are said to be inclined against giving her a privileged entry, but if she gets off to a flying start it is possible that she will earn her way in. One thing it will not be is dull – and that is one of the few virtues to emerge from this malignant saga.
Logic is immaterial. This is a specialized reaction for a locker room outcast. If someone else on the WTA were coming back from getting railroaded by doping and tennis officials, they’d be welcomed with open arms. Instead, Sharapova is the villain for having the audacity to reap the rewards of her fame and start on the faster track back to the top of the sport. But once she’s in the draw, it’s up to Maria Sharapova to win matches, earn points and get back to the top of the game. Wild cards can only do so much. Depends on your tennis orientation – either welcome her back or keep cribbing of she being a cheat.
Though not inconspicuously, Sharapova has served her sentence. It’s not correct, that she should be further obstructed on her return; such decisions are the domain of tournament organizers and how many bums on seats they seek.