Maria Sharapova will achieve an ignominious distinction next week: when she takes the court for her opening match at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart, she will become the first tennis superstar ever to return to action after being suspended for using a performance enhancing substance. She already has the distinction of being the only tennis superstar ever barred for such an infraction. Baseball has seen a handful of big-name players mount comebacks from doping suspensions. The track and field world is a practiced hand at this sort of thing. But for tennis, it is a new experience, and because Sharapova is also one of the sport’s most glamorous figures, there is obviously enormous interest in the resumption of her playing career.
Sharapova, who turned 30 yesterday, tested positive for meldonium at last year’s Australian Open. Meldonium, also known by its brand name Mildronate, is a drug that stimulates blood flow and is often used to treat heart ailments. But the increased blood flow can also help athletes, and for this reason, the World Anti-Doping Agency banned the use of meldonium starting January 1 2016—three weeks before Sharapova tested positive for it. When Sharapova, a five-time grand slam singles winner, announced the test result at a press conference in Los Angeles last March, she said that she had taken meldonium for a decade to treat “several health issues” and that she had failed the test because she had neglected to consult WADA’s updated list of banned substances, which she said was “a huge mistake.”
Sharapova’s press conference marked the start of what became a strange and altogether unpleasant saga. Last June, she was given a two-year suspension by the International Tennis Federation. In its 33-page report, the ITF said that Sharapova had not knowingly violated the prohibition against meldonium and conceded that had she been aware that the substance had been outlawed, she would have stopped taking it. But the report said there was no medical justification for her to still be using meldonium a decade after it was initially prescribed, noted that she had concealed her use of the drug from her coach, her doctors, her nutritionist, and her trainer, and said it was thus reasonable to conclude that she took the drug “for the purpose of enhancing her performance.” It went on to say that Sharapova was guilty of a “moral fault” and was “the sole author of her own misfortune.”
Even if you agree that Sharapova screwed up and agree, too, that she was probably using meldonium to gain a competitive edge, there was something disturbing about the ITF report. Kafkaesque would be an apt description—the ITF was clearly determined to hand down a severe penalty and seemed to go out of its way to cast Sharapova’s actions in the most nefarious light. It doesn’t require a particularly cynical frame of mind to wonder if there was more at work in this instance than just a desire for justice. The ITF had been criticized for years for what many saw as lax enforcement of anti-doping policies, and at the time that Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, the organization was also under fire for what many regarded as a less-than-energetic response to evidence of rampant match-fixing.
Sharapova’s failed drug test pushed the match-fixing scandal out of the headlines. It also afforded the ITF the chance to Make A Statement—what better way to demonstrate its commitment to keeping tennis clean (and to silence the critics) than by banishing one of the sport’s marquee figures? I have no idea whether the ITF was trying to make an example of Sharapova. But the two-year suspension seemed excessive in view of the circumstances, as did the harshly censorious language in the ITF’s report. In a decision last October that plainly suggested that the ITF had not dealt fairly with Sharapova, the Court of Arbitration for Sport announced that it was reducing her suspension to 15 months and declared that she was not “an intentional doper.” I think it’s fair to say that the ITF took a difficult situation and made it worse.
So did some of Sharapova’s peers, who couldn’t resist the opportunity to add to her humiliation by letting the world know how unpopular the Russian was in the locker room. Kristina Mladenovic told the French newspaper Le Parisien that Sharapova “wasn’t really liked” because she “wasn’t really nice or polite.” Dominika Cibulkova also slammed Sharapova, calling her “arrogant, conceited, and cold.” Even if that was true, the piling on was pretty lowbrow. Sharapova had just done possibly irreparable harm to her career and her image; regardless of how Cibulkova, Mladenovic and other players felt about her, the “Ding, Dong, the witch is dead” chants were unwarranted, and served only to make them seem small. Ironically, it was Serena Williams, Sharapova’s longtime nemesis, who offered the most gracious and politic response: she said that Sharapova “showed a lot of courage” by being so forthright and commended her for taking responsibility for the failed drug test.
But while Sharapova’s candor at that press conference might have been laudable, she has not handled her suspension as tactfully as one might have hoped. Instead of contrition, she has mostly exhibited defiance. She used the time off from tennis to pursue what amounted to a high-profile work-study program—taking a class at Harvard Business School, doing a short internship with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and with an advertising agency, etc. It was the Sharapova Unbowed Tour, which will continue with the release this September of her memoir. Never mind that sports memoirs are usually written after athletes retire and that Sharapova’s book is going to leave out what is likely to prove the most interesting chapter of her career, her pending comeback; to publish a memoir just four months after returning from a doping suspension is unseemly. The same can be said of her current media blitz and all this talk of feeling vindicated and empowered. I get that Sharapova doesn’t believe her infraction merited the punishment she received—or any punishment at all—and I’m not suggesting that she should have spent the past year curled up on her couch binge-watching Kardashian reruns. But she was busted for using a banned substance, and there has been something a little tone deaf about her conduct since then (which is mystifying, given how intelligent and PR savvy she and the people around her are).
That tone-deafness extends to the current controversy over the wild card berths she has been offered in Stuttgart, Madrid, and Rome. You can’t fault tournament organizers for giving her the get-out-of-jail-free cards: they have seats to fill and she’s a major draw. But it would have been a shrewd move on her part to have insisted on fighting through the qualifying rounds instead, as a kind of self-imposed penance. Think back to when Andre Agassi played those Challenger events in 1997; his willingness to relegate himself to the minors helped change the way people viewed him and became part of his legend. Obviously, the circumstances were different—Agassi wasn’t returning from a doping suspension—but he set an example that Sharapova would have been wise to follow. Fairly or not, this imbroglio has tainted her reputation, and it seems to me that carving out a path to redemption rather than making a show of defiance would have been the smarter strategy.
Of course, there is another way she can hope to put this episode behind her, and that’s by winning. And, irony of ironies, Serena Williams has now done Sharapova another favor—on her birthday, no less. With the news yesterday that Williams is pregnant, the chances that Sharapova’s comeback will yield a grand slam title suddenly went up substantially. Were Sharapova to win another major, it wouldn’t be a feel-good story, but it might go some way to rehabilitating her image. If nothing else, it would ensure that the failed drug test doesn’t go down as the last word on her career. And if Sharapova does win another slam, she ought to send a thank-you note to Williams, along with a gift for the baby shower.
Editor's note: Mike Steinberger is a journalist based in the Philadelphia area. He has written about tennis for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and the Financial Times. The views expressed are his own.