Maria and the Meldonium Saga

Was a tennis doping scandal like this a long time coming?  I believe it was.  The signs have been there for a while now.  The largely unfounded accusations hurled at Rafael Nadal, the HGH ruckus with American, Wayne Odesnik, Richard Gasquet’s French kiss with a little dash of cocaine? I’ll go ahead and lump in Andre Agassi’s crystal meth confession in his book, Open.  While the last incident may be viewed under the factual context that crystal meth absolutely does not enhance an athlete’s competitive ability, all of the above incidents had served to underscore a glaring truth.  There was a hole in tennis’s drug testing system.  It had been there for a long time, and it was a big one.

In the aftermath of these revelations, tennis’s governing bodies moved to step up their game with increased testing and soon a few mid-sized ‘fish’ were caught; Victor Troicki and Marin Cilic.  These incidents caused minor ripples in tennis’s fabric though.  Troicki was a mid-ranked player at the time and Marin Cilic, was a talent that was yet to fulfill his potential.  There were murmurs of a big catch coming up, but the buzz only simmered and never really boiled over… until now.

Fast forward to 2016, and the familiar stories were in full flight.  The Australian Open had produced another surprise women’s champion, in the form of Angelique Kerber.  The buzz was around Djokovic and Serena having dominant seasons once again, Federer’s yearly quest to get that elusive eight major and Nadal’s continuing doldrums.  He’d crashed out early in Australia and the R word was beginning to rear its ugly head again.  It was business as usual and then… Hiroshima happened.  On March 7th, Maria Sharapova held an unexpected press conference.  I’m willing to bet everyone thought she would be announcing her retirement from tennis.  Instead Maria Sharapova told us – rather painfully – that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open.  She had tested positive for a recently banned substance known as Mildronate or Meldonium depending on where you live.

This didn’t cause a ripple.  It caused a tsunami.  With all due respect, this was no journeyman, or mid-ranked player.  This was no unfulfilled talent or one major wonder.  This was Maria Sharapova.  A perennial top ten player with five time grand slam champion and former world no 1 player.  But just as with the other cases, this one has been anything but straightforward.  In her press conference Sharapova was quick to take responsibility for being careless and not noting the updates made to the banned list.  She was maybe even quicker to emphasize that she had been taking Mildronate on a prescription basis for health complications that had arisen ten years earlier.

And there in lies the problem.  On the surface, Maria’s reasons check out.  Meldonium does address the challenges she claims to have been facing at the time.  However, there are some inconsistencies that need to be ironed out.  For instance, were these conditions in anyway chronic?  If not, how come Meldonium was found in her system, ten years later. What were her dosages?  Were they high enough to grant her an unfair advantage against her fellow WTA players?  These questions and a whole lot more, will most likely be answered during the hearing.

Just as well, WADA does have some answering to do as well.  Maria’s claim that the notification process was convoluted, may not be unfounded.  There were over two dozen more athletes who tested positive to the same substance.  Could they have also failed to read their emails?  Why did it take ten years for WADA to determine the performance enhancing benefits of Meldonium?  Surely they would have detected it repeatedly in Maria’s system over that period of time.  Let’s keep in mind that Maria in a sense, represents the ‘disposable champion’.  She is above the likes of Ivanovic, Li Na and even Azarenka when it comes to star power and tennis legacies, however she’s no Serena Williams.  All this makes her the ‘perfect’ example for WADA’s new no nonsense approach.

Let the saga continue.

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