In-depth: After Maria Sharapova admitted to failing a drugs test at the Australian Open, what future in the game awaits the 29-year-old?
Sharapova fails drugs test – the background
Maria Sharapova is said to be facing a lengthy ban from tennis after testing positive for the use of meldonium at the Australian Open in January.
In a press conference on Monday the 28-year-old admitted to taking the substance for health reasons since 2006, which only became prohibited according to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at the start of the year.
She was charged on March 2 and has been provisionally suspended from March 12.
Nike have already suspended their relationship with the five-time Grand Slam winner, whose annual earnings of £26m in 2005 made her the highest-earning female athlete in the world in each of the past 11 years.
Sponsors Tag Heuer have also said they will not renew their contract with the Russian, meaning her vast earnings have already taken a big hit with the shock news.
Speaking on Monday the Russian said: “I made a huge mistake.
“I have let my fans down and let the sport down that I have been playing since the age of four, that I love so deeply.
“I know that with this I face consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way. I really hope to be given another chance to play this game.”
Sharapova cites family history in defence
Sharapova said her family doctor had been giving her mildronate, which is also called meldonium, for 10 years after she frequently became sick, had irregular EKG results, a magnesium deficiency and a family history of diabetes.
” It is very important for you to understand that for 10 years this medicine was not on WADA’s banned list and I had been legally taking the medicine. But on January the first, the rules have changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance.”
What is Meldonium?
Meldonium is used to treat chest pain and heart attacks among other conditions, but some researchers have linked it to increased athletic performance and endurance. It is listed by WADA among its prohibited metabolic modulators, along with insulin, and some researchers say it can also help recovery.
It is not approved in the United States but is available in Russia, Latvia and other countries in that region.
Over the past month, Russian cyclist Eduard Vorganov, Russian figure skater Ekaterina Bobrova, Ethiopia-born athletes Endeshaw Negesse and Abeba Aregawi, and Ukraine biathletes Olga Abramova and Artem Tyshchenko have all tested positive for meldonium.
Drugs and sport – a troubled past and present
Sharapova is the most prominent tennis player to test positive for a banned substance in recent years.
Marin Cilic was banned for nine months in 2013 after testing positive for a prohibited stimulant, though the suspension was cut to four months on appeal. The Croatian has since returned and remained a consistent top 20 player, winning the US Open in 2014.
Former world number one Martina Hingis retired after receiving a two-year suspension for a positive cocaine test in 2007, though the Swiss denied taking the drug.
Sharapova is the biggest name in sport to test positive since New York Yankees baseball infielder Alex Rodriguez was banned for a year in 2013 after using performance-enhancing drugs and cyclist Lance Armstrong was banned for life from racing in 2012 after a U.S. Anti-Doping investigation.
Russia’s national athletics federation was banned from taking part in the Rio Olympics this summer after being accused of running a state-sponsored doping programme last November
What next for Sharapova?
Sharapova turns 29 in April and is clearly determined to stay in the game, despite the likelihood of a significant suspension.
Jeff Tarango, Sharapova’s former coach and an ex-Tour professional, said he doubted she would be banned for that long: “I think it immediately falls under two years, but, with these circumstances, probably one year,” the American told BBC Radio 5 live.
The guidelines from the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme and WADA suggest she could face a ban lasting up to four years.
At 28 tennis players usually reach their peak, but Sharapova is a special case having started her professional career in 2003 – 13 years ago. Her sensational victory over Serena Williams at WImbledon in 2004 marked her first Grand Slam title, but she has won only four more since – two in the past eight years.
There are signs that the Russian’s career had been slowing down. She currently sits seventh in the ATP Tour rankings and has played only four tournaments since crashing out of Wimbledon at the semi-final stage last July due to an arm injury.
The last of her five Grand Slam titles came at the French Open in 2014, and whether she will be able to scale her previous heights when she returns to the court is up for serious debate. Only Serena Williams, a once-in-a-generation player, can match Sharapova’s longevity at the top of the game, but the Russian has consistently fallen short where the American has succeeded.
She is at an age where it is not uncommon for female tennis players to retire, with the likes of Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin all quitting the sport in their late twenties.
But the world No 7 has been preparing for her post-tennis career for some time, with her image and commercial endorsements throughout her career greatly exceeding the value of her tournament winnings. Famously she launched a premium candy range in 2013 called Sugarpova, with plans to extend the business beyond the sweet world and into lifestyle products.
Whatever happens, like her on court shrill, don’t expect Sharapova to disappear quietly into the night.