Thursday 22 February 2018

Sharapova - how could she be just so damn stupid?

She was the highest-paid sportswoman in the world - then failed a drugs test

Cheat: Maria Sharapova’s cheating came as a huge shock. Photo: PA
Cheat: Maria Sharapova’s cheating came as a huge shock. Photo: PA

Jim White

These past few years, it has been impossible to ignore Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon - her face has been everywhere. As you made your way to the All England Club, there she was, looking surprised on every bus stop in commercials for Evian; looking cool on every poster endorsing Nike. And then there are the girls handing out samples of Sugarpova Silly, "a premium candy line that reflects the fun, fashionable, sweet side of international tennis sensation, Maria Sharapova".

Being presented as the undisputed queen of the courts in this way you might think odd, especially given that she has not won the title at Wimbledon since 2004. For 11 injury-checked years, her playing record on the lawns of south-west London has been patchy, her time in the tournament often lasting not much longer than one of the trademark shrieks she emits every time she hits the ball.

On court, she was long ago outflanked by Serena Williams, Petra Kvitova and Angelique Kerber.

Her form on the billboards, however, has been unstoppable. While others might scoop the silverware, she has hoovered up the cash. For a decade, she has been the highest-paid sportswoman in the world, depositing €25m a year into her kitbag.

Not for much longer.

On Tuesday, in a shrewdly stage-managed mea culpa, she revealed that she had tested positive for a banned substance during the Australian Open in January. Boldly accepting responsibility, she made no attempt to hide her guilt. For 10 years, she explained, she had been taking a prescription medicine called meldonium and had neglected to notice when it was placed on the banned list by the international tennis authorities on January 1. She held her hands up: it was her fault. She would take the consequences.

They were immediate. Nike and Porsche tore up commercial deals, Evian announced it was following developments closely. For the canniest businesswoman in sport, this has been the most chastening of weeks. Never mind that a ruling on the length of the inevitable playing ban imposed is yet to be announced, the damage has already been done to the thing Maria Sharapova has always valued above all else: her bank account.

Her approach to the folding stuff is no surprise, given her background. She had been treated as a commodity by her father ever since he arrived a penniless immigrant from Russia and deposited her on the tennis courts of Florida.

Characterised by many who came into contact with him as fanatical, such was his obsessive determination to see his girl succeed, Yuri Sharapov had been encouraging her to thwack balls as if they had done her personal harm. Not because he had a burning love of the game, but because that was the way to wealth.

"I do respect the money that I've made," she said in 2013, "because I didn't grow up having a lot."

The good news for her old man was that hand in hand with her facility for playing came an ease with self-promotion. Making her debut at the tournament aged 17, she charmed and sparkled, captivated when on duty for a commercial partner and glowed in the photographic studio. Her smile was there to be bought, her co-operation to be switched on in return for a cheque. Hers was precisely the kind of image with which brands wanted to associate: clean-limbed, athletic, blonde.

She not only looked a million dollars, but was soon worth it too.

What a different figure she cut on the circuit. While she smiled on the billboards, on court she was cold, ruthless, her shriek rising in volume when she was losing in a deliberate attempt to unsettle her opponent. In the locker room, while Williams was jokey and friendly, Sharapova was aloof, describing it as her "least favourite space in the world". For her, it was simply a place of business.

As an approach, though, hers drew huge material reward. Even injury did not stall her money-making facility. The serious shoulder problem that curtailed her once inevitable-seeming march to world domination did not prevent her smouldering in a photoshoot. Never mind that she had stopped winning, the till kept ringing.

Or at least it did until last week.

According to Jacques de Cock of the London School of Marketing, the speed with which the brands pulled the plug was evidence that, in the past couple of years, Sharapova has been outmanouevred.

An unimpressive presence on social media had seen her cast in marketing minds as yesterday's woman.

"Brands have been only too pleased to find a good reason to break contracts," he says.

But here is the real shock of what has happened: given that her empire was under such intense scrutiny, how did a businesswoman as capable as Sharapova allow it to be so comprehensively threatened?

According to her statement, she had been taking meldonium since 2006, prescribed by the family doctor for a heart issue. Many, including players, have raised questions about that explanation.

Andy Murray said in an interview with the BBC afterwards: "I find it strange that so many top athletes would have a heart condition. That seems a bit off to me."

The truth is that for the decade she used it, meldonium was not illegal. It makes it all the more incomprehensible that she did not simply stop taking it the moment it was banned. As Dick Pound, former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, puts it: "Here she is running a €25m operation, knowing that it only exists if she remains eligible to compete.

"How stupid can you be? If you're taking medicine, surely someone around you checks if it's on the list. It's not that difficult for one of her medical team to look and say, 'This is a problem.'"

No one did. And Team Sharapova's collective act of complacency has undermined everything she has ever worked for. Because there can be no way back from this.

However skilful her presentation of guilt, this failed test ended everything. No commercial operation will touch her; a woman who lived by endorsement has killed her own brand.

And if she wants to know what happens next, there are plenty who can tell her. Like Dwain Chambers, once the fastest Brit in history, who spent a decade trying to recapture his prominence after failing a drug test in 2004. "I got worse on drugs," the 37-year-old sprinter now says. "It did not help me in any capacity. It ruined my career."

What was most damaged, he recalls, was his image.

Everyone who saw him when he made an ill-starred comeback saw not the personable young man of those pre-ban days, but an exemplar of deceit. It was something he could never throw off: he was always the man who was caught cheating. "That was my guilt," he says.

After his ban, Chambers came back to run and even won things. But commercially, he didn't have a chance. And that is the fate awaiting Sharapova. Already 29 in a sport dominated by the young, she will be well past her best if she ever can return to the court.

Shunned by rivals and tennis peers who long ago grew weary of her noise and disdain, she will have few rooting for her. And the commercial world she once bestrode will move on, finding a new fresh-faced totem among the teenaged Sharapova-wannabes.

For Maria Sharapova, this is what will really hurt about her future prospects: not being wanted any more, by anyone.

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