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9 March 2016

The fall of Maria Sharapova

Should we be surprised by her humiliation?

By Jason Cowley

I was a spectator on Centre Court that warm afternoon in July 2004 when Maria Sharapova, who faces suspension from tennis after testing positive for a banned substance, won Wimbledon for the first time. She was 17 years old and had been expected to lose her first Grand Slam final to the defending champion, Serena Williams. In the event, the tall, blonde Russian, who in her early teens had moved to live and train at the celebrated Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, thrashed Williams 6-1, 6-4.

The match lasted only 73 minutes and Sharapova played with exuberance and steely control throughout. The power and accuracy of her shot-making were remarkable. She was at the forefront of a new generation of power-baseliners in the women’s game and yet, in spite of her height (6ft 2in), she moved with fluidity and grace. Williams, the ultimate power-hitter, had seemingly met her match: she was not so much defeated as bludgeoned off the court. (Interestingly, Williams has won 17 of her 19 matches against Sharapova.)

At the end, before the presentation ceremony, Sharapova climbed in among the spectators and made her way up to the box where her father was sitting. She embraced him and asked for a mobile phone with which she tried to make a call – she explained later that she wanted to speak to her mother in Florida. It was a moment of spontaneous celebration: a teenager wishing to share her joy with the parents who had borrowed money to fund her tuition under Bollettieri. This was the beginning of a great adventure and it occurred to me, even then, that every mobile-phone company in the world must have wished Sharapova had used their phone to make that call. Never such innocence again.

Sport in general – especially football, tennis and golf – is one of the foremost drivers of globalisation, an engine of meritocracy and of hyper-capitalism. Tennis is the only sport in which women have parity with men, in terms of earnings and prestige. Very quickly after that Wimbledon victory, Sharapova – so photogenic, so gifted – allowed herself to be captured by corporate America. She became a multiple “brand ambassador” and the world’s highest-earning sportswoman. She was appealing to sponsors in a way that the Williams sisters, who have been racially abused at tournaments and whom even their father called “ghetto Cinderellas”, never were.

At a press conference in Los Angeles this week, Sharapova, dressed sombrely in black, said that she’d been taking meldonium, a medication used to treat diabetes and heart conditions, for ten years. It was added by the World Anti-Doping Agency to the list of banned substances at the start of this year. Sharapova tested positive at the Australian Open in January.

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Should we be surprised by her humiliation? Every fan knows that high-level sport is tainted by corruption and that doping is rife. It’s not just power and endurance sports such as athletics and cycling that have been corroded by drugs cheats. Arsenal’s manager, Arsène Wenger, has spoken cryptically this season about the use of banned substances in European football  but, when pressed for details, never elaborates. He evidently knows that something is going on.

All professional sports clubs and coaches are adept at seeking competitive advantage, through the application of sports science and the latest technological and medical innovations. In global sport the winner takes all. The temptation to go that little bit further and push against what is legally permissible must be great indeed, especially when the rewards can seem limitless.

“I have let my fans down,” Sharapova said sadly this week as one by one her corporate sponsors – Nike, TAG Heuer and Porsche – suspended their contracts with her. She will not be the last “star” to make such an abject apology.

This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho