Is this is the end of the game for Maria Sharapova?

Sally Hancock writes;

45 years ago, in 1971, Billy Jean King became the first female player to challenge the inequalities in that existed in her sport.  She argued, quite simply, that women should be paid on the basis of their performance not their looks, and should be able to earn a living from their sport.

Despite women finally achieving the right to equal prize money with men at Grand Slams, 2016 has not started well for women in the world of tennis.  The Indian Wells Tournament Chief Executive Raymond Moore was forced to resign after making a number of controversial comments about female players, who, Moore said, "should get down on their knees" to thank their male counterparts such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for boosting their profile.  Moore also said the women's game "rides on the coat-tails" of the men - a view described as "sexist" by the United States Tennis Association, and "offensive and very inaccurate" by women's world number one Serena Williams.

This view then appeared to be endorsed by the world’s number one male player.  Rather than stand up for the rights of his female counterpart, Novac Djokovic added to the debate by saying that, since the men’s game, he believed, attracted a bigger audience and was therefore more popular, men should be fighting for even more prize money.  He has since apologized for his remarks.

However, perhaps the biggest scandal ever to hit women’s tennis was the confession in March by Maria Sharapova, the highest earning female athlete of any sport in the world, of a positive drugs test at the Australian Open in January.  Sharapova called a press conference and admitted that she had tested positive for the drug meldonium, which she had been legally taking for “a medical condition” for 10 years. The drug had been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) banned list on January 1, which Sharapova claimed not to know.

Owning up to failing a drugs test is a rare occurrence.  By taking control of the message, Sharapova was able to stage manage the event, the message, and her image.  The media were however quick to challenge her version of events. “Brand Sharapova” has a huge team behind her, and was warned five times before the substance was finally banned, so claiming she was unaware of this makes little sense.

Before this news became public, Sharapova appeared to be the perfect sports ambassador. This however is starting to look like an illusion. And this, as with every doping case, raises serious ethical questions about the responsibility of athletes as role models who capitalise on their apparent phenomenal physical power to get ahead. Sharapova has been using a drug that has known physically-enhancing side effects for 10 years, for which a usual course lasts four to six weeks.  Indeed, the World Anti-Doping Authority, (WADA) noted that 17% of all Russian athletes have been found to be taking the drug.

Sharapova has been the highest paid female athlete in the world for the last 11 years, and is currently ranked seventh in the world in terms of play. Serena Williams, on the other hand, earns less than half of the total endorsements of Sharapova, despite Sharapova having only taken one set off Williams in their last 14 matches.  Almost immediately, Nike suspended her £50 million eight-year sponsorship deal, Porsche dropped their £2 million deal and Tag Heuer suspended renegotiations of her £2 million contract.  Her racket sponsor Head, on the other hand, extended her contract in recognition of the “honesty she has displayed, admitting her mistake”. Athletes who reach those highest levels become a ‘brand’ and drive sales of products. But even if she is found to be “clean”, will the public continue to buy into her? 

Is Sharapova being treated any differently because she is a female athlete? Yes, and no.   In March 2015, Nike renewed the contract of Justin Gatlin (banned for doping twice), before a year of scandal, across sport, brought ethics to the top of the agenda. In 2016 there is now no hiding place for cheats in sport and it’s essential that corruption, of whatever kind, is dealt with. And only after the International Tennis Federation’s investigation and her sentence, will Maria see what she might have to do to make a comeback. 


This article first appeared in Sporto Magazine, April 2016