Monday, March 14, 2016


the Spin Team

On the day that Maria Sharapova stood on a podium in a downtown Los Angeles hotel, criticised the hotel carpeting in the midst of telling the whole world that she had been provisionally banned by the ITF as a result of a failed doping test, the image which has been built by the best PR image makers that IMG money can buy, has struck an odd and discordant note. It is clear from Maria's tweets and Facebook posts that she does not see the irony of her situation.

Her team, including her attorney, John Haggerty, have been at pains to let the world know that what occurred with Sharapova was a mistake. She had failed to click a link in an email from WADA informing her that the drug that she had been taking for 10 years was going to be placed on the list of prohibited substances as of 1 January 2016. For Sharapova then to post a tweet telling the world about reading emails from fans showing their support is ironic at best or shows the complete and total disregard she holds for rules that must only apply to others, not for herself. 

However, this should not be surprising to those of us who have followed Sharapova since that career defining win against Serena in 2004 and the ensuing fawning of her by the media. Some journalists have even turned themselves into her publicists, relating news about Sharapova's injuries and the minutia of her life. What is surprising to me is how much the media and those who considered themselves insiders with the Sharapova camp were completely caught off guard by Monday's press announcement.  One would be forgiven if one sensed a hint of betrayal from reporters who have discovered that they were not in the know. However, that has not stopped them from falling in line when it comes to reporting about this whole doping debacle.  You get the sense that the sooner it is all dealt with, the better the sport can be by doing what it does best, i.e. imitating the behaviour of an ostrich.

Sharapova has repeatedly stated how much this sport means to her.  She and her team have gone to great lengths to tell fans just how much tennis means to her. However, a cursory review of Sharapova’s career shows that she has done little to nothing to advance the sport of tennis.  

For someone who loves the sport so much, she wasted little or no time in throwing not only her colleagues under the bus, but the whole sport of tennis:

Consider for a moment those players who have not only acted as mentors to players from their own countries, whether it is in coaching, mentoring, being practice partners, to going as far as being on the forefront of changes within the sport (see Venus Williams), to sitting on the Players’ Council to effect meaningful change that benefits all players (see Clijsters, Serena, Wozniacki) to being a symbol for women in countries where the advancement of women's rights has been a long, painful and arduous journey (see China (Li Na) and India (Sania Mirza), I have to ask myself, what has Sharapova done to advance the sport of tennis? 

As far as I can see she has done little to grow the sport of tennis in her native Russia or indeed in her adopted country, the USA.  So, I am at pains to figure out just what it is about this sport that she loves so much.  Is it the fact that it affords her a reliable customer base for her candy line, or is it the fact that most, if not all of her sponsors sell high end good which are targeted to the rich folks who presumably frequent Porsche dealerships and TagHauer stores who only drink Evian water and wear Tiffany jewels? 

At the time this writing, the ITF has yet to hand down its decision but already there have been dozens of articles written stating that she should not be severely penalized.  Contrast the following articles which were written when Serena Williams cut her foot after winning Wimbledon in 2010 and when she had a dizzy spell during a doubles match at Wimbledon in 2015.

The NewYork Times stated that she needed to provide an explanation; and 
The DailyMail, never to be left out of anything vaguely akin to journalism had this to say

The above articles are the usual pieces that are written when anything remotely resembling the appearance of doping is attached to Serena Williams.  In the meantime, an athlete who has actually committed a doping violation has barely faced any backlash.  As a matter of fact, fans and journalists alike were pissed beyond belief that NIKE would abandon her in what they think is her time of need.  As more and more details have emerged as to the negligence that attended Sharapova’s decision not to click on the link in her notification emails, HEAD, her racquet sponsor has come out in support of Sharapova, stating that they are giving her the benefit of the doubt.  One wonders what will happen if the ITF/WADA decide to impose a 4 year ban on the grounds that she was grossly negligent in continuing to take a drug, for which she received adequate notice that it was about to be placed on the list of prohibited substances.  If I was a shareholder of HEAD, I would demand that the CEO resign because clearly he is not making decisions that are in the best interest of shareholders.

Today (14 March), Steve Simon, newly appointed head of the Women's Tennis Association has been quoted as stating that Ms. Sharapova made an "honest mistake".  I have written countless times about the inherent conflicts of interest that permeates tennis and I can't for the life of me figure out why the head of the WTA would think that it is his place to comment on an issue that is now outside the purview of the WTA. 

 If it is that he is siding with Ms. Sharapova's team that this was an “honest mistake”, then it stands to reason that the WTA needs to assume part of that blame. In this scenario, the only way an “honest mistake” could have been made is if the information that was being provided was not provided in a manner that is easily accessible.  Ms. Sharapova has indicated that it was difficult for her to obtain the relevant information on meldonium because (1) she did not know the name by which WADA had announced that it was a prohibited substance; (2) she did not click on the link that WADA had sent out in an email on 22 December; (3) she did not receive the 5 notifications; and (4) the WADA site is difficult to navigate.   Perhaps by the end of the day someone will point out the other excuses that have been raised as a result of this "honest mistake".  Frankly, if you look at the list of excuses/reasons, one can be forgiven for thinking that even if Ms. Sharapova had clicked on the link(s) she would not have been able to figure out that the drug she had been taking for 10 years went by another name, and we would have been in this same position once again.

Mr. Simon, you have only just assumed the head of the WTA.  There are more pressing issues on the women's Tour at this time (time to go make peace with tournament officials in Dubai and Doha for one). Surely, taking up the mantle for someone who has the money and the connections to defend herself is outside your purview and by extension outside the purview of the WTA?  This is even worse than the talking points that the Tour has issued to players regarding this incident.

There have been strenuous requests by persons associated with Ms. Sharapova as well as members of the press who have asked that we should wait until all the facts are known before casting judgment.  However, it is quite hard for us tennis fans and those of us who truly love this sport to think that both Mr. Simon and the Chief Executive Officer of HEAD are both privy to information unknown to the rest of us which makes them take the position that this doping offence by Ms. Sharapova is an honest mistake.  If that is the case then there is no need for us to have a hearing and we can just continue merrily on our way 
As the days pass and we learn more and more about mildronate (meldonium), some players are speaking out and speaking out in a voice that will not be silenced. Andy Murray, so called champion of feminist causes had this to say about the issue.

"If you take a prescription drug[s] that you don't need but just because it is legal is wrong. You are just doing it for the performance-enhancing benefits," [emphasis mine]

Kiki Mladenovic, a French player also had some strong views on the whole situation. Her response to questions posed to her by what I presume is a French journalist (Yellow Ball Corner) are printed below in its entirety (via YellowBallCorner)

"What's your reaction concerning Maria Sharapova failed drug test?

 She doesn't even deserve any comment... As far as I'm concerned if I take a doliprane I think ten times about it before, so thinking she took a serious drug for ten years and hearing some saying she's not even sick... She has played with the rules, saying : it's not on the list so I'm gonna take it. It's disappointing and I don't like this mentality of trying to be the best by playing with the rules. That's low. She can play with the words, get good lawyers but in the principle she's totally wrong and all the players think the same thing, even the top players. And anyway many are not that surprised, due to her daily attitude : she wasn't liked.

Are you now doubting all your rivals? 

No, cause that's the big positive news inside all this drama: it proves the anti doping program is extremely efficient and that even the best players, if it doesn't go as it should it gets out.

Would you be shocked if she wasn't receiving a heaving sanction?

That's obvious she must be punished. That's very serious, and it's lasting since ten years: who does she think we are ! When you see the efforts we do to improve our endurance, our recovery, to deal with our emotions and the stress. When you're stronger physically, you're also stronger mentally. So here you wonder if the girl has done those efforts, and if she did she hasn't suffered like us, she did it easily. So you start to think she's not a champion : she cheated. Even if it wasn't forbidden before : it's the principle. Of course you doubt and you think that she hasn't deserved all that she won and did. It's dreadful, but it's good that it's finally out. I respected her for her career, but not for the person that she is because she wasn't polite nor nice, let's be honest. So with what's happening now, there won't remain a lot of people to like her... I'm a bit harsh... But we all think and say here that she's a cheater. She has no excuse, no defense. For me the debate is close and there's no doubt." 

 During her press conference, Sharapova was at pains to let us know that for the 10 years that she has been taking this medicine (note the use of the word medicine and not drug) it was perfectly legal to do so.  While that is indeed the case, the fact of the matter is that the various illnesses for which Sharapova was being treated could have been treated with other drugs. Frankly speaking, if I am taking a drug for 10 years and the symptoms of my disease keeps coming back then I am definitely going to get a second or third opinion. 

But enough of whether Sharapova knew or did not know that her medicine had been placed on WADA's list of prohibited substances, let us look at what has happened since Monday's announcement.  

The media blitz by the Sharapova team continues merrily along with a Facebook posting by Ms. Sharapova to her fans attempting to set the record straight regarding the number of notifications that she received regarding meldonium.  Frankly, it doesn't even matter how many notices she received.  The fact remains that as of 1 January 2016 she was in violation of the doping rules and therefore she needs to face the consequences of this.  In her message to fans, Ms. Sharapova took the opportunity to castigate her colleagues and the sport itself by stating that unlike others, she did not cite an injury as the reason behind a doping violation.  She is, therefore, to be commended for her honesty and bravery. 

 On the eve of Ms. Sharapova's letter to her fans, a former French minister for Sports (Mlle Bachelot) came out and implied that Rafael Nadal had been hit with a doping violation in 2012 and that his knee injury was fake.  Of course, tennis fans, not averse to playing connect the dots are of the view that Ms. Sharapova's comment about not citing an injury for a doping violation was a dig at Nadal. 

It is time for us to let the ITF and WADA do its job.  It is either the case that tennis needs to continue to play ostrich with anti doping or we just decide that it is going to be a free for all and everyone can do whatever it is that they like.  As a long time fan of the sport, I am appalled at the comments from people who should know better.  It would seem as if tennis fans prefer their sport to remain the way it is, surrounded by rumours and inneundo.  God forbid that anyone should try and uncover the darkness within.  If anyone does, we will no doubt become like cycling where we deny and deny and deny until the evidence stares us in the face and we can deny no more. 

Next week we will look at the views expressed by various tennis players regarding anti-doping efforts.  Let us just say that the Spin Team is disappointed. 

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