Paul Thomas

Maria Sharapova and Meldonium

Mar 25, 2016 | Sports

So tennis superstar Maria Sharapova has tested positive to a banned substance, been dumped by some big brand sponsors and faces a lengthy ban.

Oh dear. How sad.

Every now and again, one’s raw, spontaneous reaction to something that, on the face of it, is no laughing matter is to howl like a banshee. For Oscar Wilde it was the death of Little Nell in Charles Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop.

Another that springs to mind was Heather Mills’s claim, during the PR war leading up to her divorce from Sir Paul McCartney, that she’d had to crawl to the toilet when nature called during the wee small hours because the ex-Beatle wouldn’t let her keep a potty under the marital bed. (Mills used a prosthetic device, her left leg having been amputated below the knee after she was run down by a police motorcyclist.)

While that might seem callous, the claim revealed the boundless malice and pettiness that had consumed a marriage the parties themselves had previously assured us was made in heaven. Secondly, Mills had shown herself to be a resilient opportunist with a “somewhat elastic relationship with the truth”, as one of the many former lovers and friends with whom she’d fallen out put it. Thirdly, the claim was drastically at odds with the “butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth” image McCartney had cultivated since the earliest days of Beatlemania.

Sharapova’s admission triggered cackles of schadenfreude for several reasons.

There was her humdinger of an excuse: despite being a professional athlete using a substance issued to Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan because it increased endurance, neither she nor anyone in her entourage opened the attachment to the World Anti Doping Agency email informing her that meldonium had been banned because, well, they couldn’t be arsed.

She also said she’d been taking meldonium for ten years following abnormal electrocardiogram readings and concerns over incipient diabetes; the drug’s manufacturer says a treatment should last four to six weeks no more than twice a year.

There’s her queenish on-court demeanour that conveys the impression she regards all-out physical effort as beneath her dignity.

Few elite competitors can have been as nonchalant in catastrophic defeat as Sharapova after losing the 2012 Australian open singles final to Victoria Azarenka 6-3, 6-0: “As in any sport, you have your good days, you have your tough days and you have days when things just don’t work out.”

You would have thought there’d be more embarrassment, less “c’est la vie” given she earned A$1,150,000 for her 82 minutes of token resistance. Losing men’s finalist Rafael Nadal hung in there for five hours and 53 minutes to earn the same amount. Equal pay doesn’t necessarily mean equal work.

Her nonchalance makes some sense when you consider that Sharapova Inc long since ceased to be primarily about the tennis.

According to Forbes magazine, Sharapova has been the highest paid female athlete in the world for 11 consecutive years en route to amassing a US$285 million fortune. Most of that has come from endorsements and commercial ventures. (A few years ago she seriously considered changing her name to Sugarpova to align herself even more closely with her line of premium candies: “What could be sweeter than a fruit flavoured candy kiss from our lips to yours?”)

Sharapova isn’t just eye candy with a racquet and an unfeasibly short dress like Anna Kournikova: she has won five grand slam titles. But although she claims to dread the prospect of a career-ending ban, one suspects the wider, corporate view is that tennis – and meldonium - have served their purpose.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Listener.