When a teary-eyed Maria Sharapova confessed to the world’s media that she had failed a drugs test at January’s Australian Open, a return to the court in a professional playing capacity seemed implausible, if not impossible.
Sharapova tested positive for meldonium (a substance proven to increase endurance, reduce fatigue and speed up recovery) and the ITF’s adjourning tribunal penalised the Russian superstar with an initial two-year ban.
In recent times, tennis has been plagued with doping revelations, and is certainly not new to the highest of high-profile drug bans. ‘Swiss-Miss’ Martina Hingis’ arguably harsh two-year ban for a microscopically positive cocaine test springs to mind (on a status level if nothing else). Hingis, despite her claims of innocence, immediately announced her retirement from the sport – exactly what many incorrectly predicted of Sharapova’s reaction.
No doubt wise to the court of arbitration for sport’s (CAS) willingness to undermine the ITF, Maria took the other road, and to the courtroom. Her ban was reduced to just fifteen months meaning the former poster girl of the women’s circuit can return to action as early as April 2017 – just in time for the French Open and Wimbledon.
The CAS has built up quite a history of decreasing imposed penalties. Perennial top-ten-teeterer Richard Gasquet’s one-year ban eventualised to just two-and-a-half months – the time it took to somehow convince a panel of his eyebrow-raising ‘cocaine kiss’ story. Three years ago, both Viktor Troicki and Marin Cilic also had doping bans shortened upon appeal. The infamous Wayne Odesnik had his initial two-year ban halved before returning only to repeat-offend.
Then there’s the nandrolone scandal of the early noughties… incredibly the ATP accepted that they themselves may have inadvertently supplied the banned substance to not far shy of half of the top 120; and so only minor punishments, if any, were handed out.
In Sharapova, we have a genuine worldwide icon – a woman with links to global super-brands Nike, Head and Porsche amongst others – as well as annual earnings of over $30m. But does her chance of salvaging a once glowing reputation in the sport now seem unlikely? Judging by her attributes which have achieved international recognition, a career Grand Slam and world no.1 status on five separate occasions, it’s hard to believe that the inevitable heckling from the crowds will affect Sharapova’s impermeable on-court demeanour as she strives to make up for lost time. If anyone seems the type to go single-mindedly about her business, regardless of the situation, it’s Maria.
In many ways, being side-lined for this period could well prove beneficial to Sharapova. It’s reasonable to think that such a break from the relentless nature of the sport might have enabled technical improvement, physical recuperation and valuable reflection on her position in the game.
After all, we’ve seen this before; Marin Cilic surprised the tennis world when he won the 2014 US Open – his only major championship win to date having served his ban just the previous autumn. Like Cilic, Sharapova is a sturdy character, and her intensely focused attitude has always been one of her prime assets. Roberta Vinci will share the spotlight with Maria for the big comeback tomorrow but don’t expect the tennis itself to produce much drama. Vinci has been on a dramatic decline since reaching the US Open final in 2015 and if Sharapova in any way resembles her former self she’ll bag a routine victory.