Saturday 10 December 2016

Drugs test failure muddies Maria Sharapova's golden image

Published 07/03/2016 | 21:24

Maria Sharapova has been shaped by superlatives since she announced her arrival on the world tennis scene as a sweet-faced 16-year-old in 2003, swatting and swinging her way to the Wimbledon fourth round.

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Hottest. Richest. Sexiest. Loudest: they have clung to Sharapova with the regularity that her famous backhand winners find the lines, perpetuating the image of a girl for whom her sport is only a small part of the hype.

Now, though, all of that must compete for attention with a probable ban from competition after the Russian revealed she failed a drug test at this January's Australian Open.

Having fallen foul of a change to WADA's list of banned substances, though, Sharapova insisted: "I don't want to end my career this way."

That is in keeping with the steely on-court demeanour that has taken her to the top of her sport.

Right from the start, when Sharapova blinked out from the dais of her first post-match interview at the All England Club after a dominant win over Ashley Harkleroad, she made clear another Anna Kournikova was not within our midst.

Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova

"Sometimes [people] think that men are sort of like tough and they're big and they're power, and girls are all sweet and pinkish," she said in the clipped, no-nonsense tones of one who was already assured of her destiny. "My dream is to be number one in the world."

The comparisons with the notoriously under-achieving Kournikova were as inevitable as they were quickly obliterated. For all her mounting business interests and her looks, though, Sharapova also proved she had what it took to triumph on the tennis court.

Twelve months on from her Wimbledon debut, Sharapova returned to SW19 where she became the third youngest woman to win the title, vanquishing Serena Williams with a performance of staggering maturity on Centre Court; so impressive that over a decade on it remains the blueprint for brash new arrivals aiming to take the sport by storm.

The following year she fulfilled her dream of ascending to the world number one position, and as the grand slam titles threatened to pile up - she won her second in New York in 2006 - so too did the deals which would make her the most marketable sports personality on the planet.

It was perhaps not hard to uncover why Sharapova was not fitting the bill as a Kournikova-clone. She spoke eloquently of her childhood in the shadow of Chernobyl, from which her parents, Yuri and Yelena, fled when Yelena was pregnant with her in 1986.

Living just 80 miles north of the reactor in the Belarusian town of Gomel, the Sharapovas had little choice but to flee. They ended up in the small Siberian town of Nyagan, where Maria grew up and of which she still speaks with pride.

Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova

Sharapova has been back to the broader region around Chernobyl, where some of her family still remain, and there is no doubt the experience has helped shaped the healthy sense of perspective in which she always kept her tennis career.

"Tennis is only a game, that's all," Sharapova once said. "I hope people don't look at tennis players like me and think we aren't connected to life outside tennis.

"We watch the news, we see what's going on and we care. I know that tennis is not the most important thing."

When announcing her failed drug test, Sharapova said she started taking meldonium in 2006 to combat illness problems, which came on top of her well-publicised injuries.

A shoulder complaint did not stop Sharapova winning her third grand slam title in Melbourne in 2008 but the issues and operations soon mounted up, and with it came a loss of form which saw her tumble down the rankings, ending 2010 ranked 18th in the world.

That unquestionable fighting heart emerged the following year when Sharapova began the exhaustive process of climbing back towards the top.

In 2012, she achieved a career grand slam when she beat Sara Errani to win the French Open title in Paris, reclaiming the world number one slot and adding an Olympic silver medal for good measure.

A second French Open title followed in 2014 but her shoulder continued to trouble her as the phenomenal physical pressure of over a decade at the top of her sport took its toll.

It was a mental lapse that brought her downfall though, as she admitted failing to check an updated list of banned substances sent on email by WADA in December which now contained the medicine she had been taking - legally - for a decade.

Press Association

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