There is nothing more damaging to a professional athlete’s image, than being found guilty of ingesting a banned substance. In some cases, such an act can be a career ending move. It has been in the past. In Tennis, players who have been found irrevocably guilty of doping, have rarely made successful comebacks to tour. Mariano Puerta and Wayne Odesnik, come to mind.
However, players and fan alike, are more forgiving when it is proven that the player did not mean to cheat and rather was the victim of an unfortunate string of events, leading to more unfortunate circumstances. Look no further than Richard Gasquet or Marin Cilic as the prime examples of this case. Marin Cilic put together a fine run to become the US open champion, after his comeback from a very dangerous brush with tennis law.
So what’s different with Maria Sharapova? In theory, her case should be similar to that of Gasquet and Cilic. In reality though, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Speculate all you may, but Maria Sharapova was found guilty of negligence and carelessness, that led to the ingestion of a substance, barely a few days after it made the banned list. She was subsequently banned from playing professional tennis for fifteen months, and is back. Yet the reception has been antagonistic at best. The question is why?
My growing theory has to do with something that has plagued the Russian star throughout her career. Her popularity with the players and the fans. Her human connection. It has been severely lacking, for a star so big. Sharapova is popular… don’t get me wrong. She is very popular. However, she is hardly a personal favorite of many… both professional players and fans alike. Raised to be the consummate professional, she has distanced herself from locker-room fandom and any other interactions she considers a distraction. The result has been a hugely successful career with a lot of brooding resentment. The problem with that is when something like this happens. That resentment comes to the surface and influences how people have chosen to receive her comeback.
I understand the emotions with Sharapova and in some cases I understand the verbal diatribe she has received (expect for Eugene Bouchard’s which was in my opinion, extreme), but facts are facts. Sharapova was banned for her carelessness and she has served her time. She is also a five time grand slam champion and the WTA could do with the consistent star power she brings to the table right about now. If she gets a wildcard, it is because the tournament sees her as deserving of it.
Besides, everyone deserves a second chance don’t they? Judges, Jury, Executioners?