The Return of Sharapova!
In a flash her career was over,
Next in line was Sugarpova,
WTA said a champion could come back
Naturally she was over the moon,
Many argue it’s a few days too soon
Watch out – Maria’s on the attack
June 8th 2016 was a sad day for tennis when former world number one, Maria Sharapova, was officially banned from tennis for 2 years (later reduced to 15 months) for failing a drug test at the Australian Open in January of that year. She had been taking an illegal performance enhancing drug, Meldonium which officially took its place on the banned substance list effective from that January. There are a couple of big questions that have torn the tennis world apart; firstly, should Sharapova be allowed to obtain wildcard entries into tournaments as she currently does not possess a world ranking or should she start from the qualifying of smaller events and build her ranking up from the bottom and secondly, Sharapova’s first event back is in Stuttgart this week and her first round main draw match has been scheduled for the 3rd day of play, coincidentally, the same day that her reduced 15 month suspension for the use of Meldonium will end. Have the WTA made an exception for Sharapova?
The Official ITF line on the Sharapova ban
The ITF charged Sharapova on the 2nd of March 2016 with an anti-doping violation. She then admitted she had committed the violation and an independent hearing was set up for May 18-19th 2016. The independent hearing determined that:
- Sharapova should serve a period of ineligibility of two years
- Due to her prompt admission of her violation, that period of ineligibility should be back-dated to the 26 January 2016 (the date of drug test) and will end at midnight on 25 January 2018
- Her results at the 2016 Australian Open should be disqualified, with resulting forfeiture of the ranking points and prize money that she won at that event.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport then reduced the ban to 15 months, stating that in no way should Sharapova be considered an ‘international doper’.
What do the players and organisers think?
Sharapova’s suspension and subsequent return have brought many questions and opinions from the current players, including Caroline Wozniacki, who is also competing at Stuttgart. Wozniacki commented, “I think everyone deserves a second chance and I think she’s going to come back and fight her way back. I’m sure she’s going to play well. But at the same time, I feel when a player is banned for drugs, I think someone should start from the bottom and fight their way back.” Wozniacki also suggested that “once a tournament is started and a player is banned, I don’t think a player should be allowed to play that week.” Current number 1 Angelique Kerber said, “It’s a little bit strange, also, for the players that she can’t walk on site until Wednesday and she can play on Wednesday. “It’s a German tournament, and we have so many good German players, so this is also a little bit strange.” Andy Murray has given a strong view stating that “I think you should really have to work your way back. However, the majority of tournaments are going to do what they think is best for their event.” In all walks of life, exceptions are made for any number of reasons; does one standard punishment does fit all crimes?
Stuttgart tournament director, Markus Gunthardt is adamant that the decision to award Sharapova a wild card for this event is well deserved as Sharapova is a 3 time champion there and he argues that every year there are Wednesday starts for players. Wildcards can be used at tournaments, at the discretion of the tournament directors to help players gain entry into the main draw of a tournament. The organisers may do this based on success at a previous tournament, provide chances to players of the tournament nationality or even to help promote their tournament. Gunthardt added “She is doing everything within the rules and she will have fulfilled her obligation of 15 months so I am not critical of that decision that the tournament made whatsoever.” Sharapova’s presence is promoting the tournament which tends to be above all, the most important factor for many tournament organisers, and therefore, why would Stuttgart not want a former world number 1, five time Grand Slam Champion and a three time winner of the Stuttgart Tournament playing at their tournament and therefore, delay her opeing round match to the day her suspension ends.
We must also look at Sharapova’s side of the story to get an clear view of the picture. Maria has admitted that she was taking Meldonium, also known as Mildronate, before January 2016 and continued taking the substance after it had been added to the list of banned substances. Sharapova was adamant she was taking the drug for health reasons as she had a lack of blood flow to parts of the body. This medicine is particularly used in cases of angina or heart failure.
The publicised reasons as to why Sharapova had her ban reduced from 2 years to 15 months were as follows.
- She had used mildronate for 10 years without any anti-doping issue.
- She did not seek treatment from her doctor, Anatoly Skalny, to obtain a performance-enhancing product, but used it only for medical reasons.
- No specific warning had been issued by Wada, the ITF or the WTA about a change in the status of meldonium.
- She took a public position acknowledging that she took meldonium and accepted responsibility.
It is my opinion, an athlete, no matter the level one is playing at is solely responsible for the nutrients you take. Some players, including Sharapova have the luxury of having a team travelling with them, looking after their diet, physical/mental health, their on-court game. The list could go on as each team and coach is very specific to the individual athlete and what their wishes are. In my view, Sharapova needed to be more aware of what she was taking in conjunction with the rules set out by the World Anti-Doping Agency, (WADA). Having said that, I don’t believe Sharapova should be allowed to take part in Stuttgart as all players should be available to take part in the tournament from day 1 to the end of the event. Sharapova will not be able to enter the premises of the Stuttgart tournament until the morning of her match. I further believe that Sharapova’s two-year ban should have stood and not reduced to 15 months.
Nevertheless, the suspension Sharapova has served is coming to an end and as stated by Wozniacki, ‘everyone deserves a second chance…’. We wish her all the best in her future in the game and look forward to putting this incident behind us for the good of the game.