Maria playing favourite game: cashing in on scandal
Unstoppable, screams the cover of Maria Sharapova’s just- released memoir, with her usual timorousness.
This must be received with at least an arched eyebrow by Serena Williams, who has stopped her on each of the past 18 occasions they have played. But it is true that Brand Maria, if not the player, remains impossible to subdue. All week, she has been shuttling between Manhattan’s morning shows, not to offer contrition or even regret at her doping suspension, but to parade herself as the injured party.
Asked about those scornful of her return after a 15- month ban for taking meldonium, a prescription heart drug — and there are many, including Eugenie Bouchard, Caroline Wozniacki, even Andy Murray — Sharapova bristles. “I don’t think it’s for them to have an opinion, really, because they don’t have the facts. Those are the types of words that make headlines, and they will be used as headlines.”
Classic Sharapova: a choreographed list of no information, all delivered with a turn- of- the- heel hauteur. She is nothing if not consistent. This icily aloof high- school prom- queen act has been perfected since she was 13, a mere wannabe among many at Nick Bollettieri’s Florida academy. Even then, according to her book, she disdained the idea of receiving fellow boarder Anna Kournikova’s cast- offs, claiming that she hated leopard- skin leggings.
If Sharapova wants facts, then let us reacquaint her with a few. For 10 years, she took meldonium, a substance that she depicts as run- ofthe- mill, over- the- counter stuff in Russia, her country of birth. Straight away, this begs questions. If the Latvian- manufactured Mildronate, to use its trade name, was so innocuous, why did she not declare it on her antidoping forms? Why could her American family doctor not find one of the vast number of alternative substances approved by the US Food and Drug Administration? Why, if her condition of an irregular heartbeat is a chronic one, does she refuse to clarify what, if anything, she is taking to counter it now that meldonium is on the banned list?
Her insistence that the drug’s use was purely therapeutic hardly holds water, either. She took it five times during the 2016 Australian Open, claiming ignorance that meldonium had been prohibited at the turn of the year — an oversight attributed, bizarrely, to her agent Max Eisenbud’s divorce, forcing the cancellation of his annual Caribbean holiday, where he would usually check the latest World Anti- Doping Agency rules by the swimming pool. Plus, there were emails from Dr Anatoly Skalny, who treated her from 2004 to 2012, advising her that she could increase her dosage before key matches.
Now, with so many unanswered issues neatly sidestepped, she is back on the PR wagon, laying on the victimhood with a trowel. Legitimate criticisms are brusquely dismissed as “comments not based on facts — therefore I don’t take them into consideration”. Within four months of her ban expiring, she is releasing an autobiography that can only be construed as a naked attempt at monetising the perceived injustice of it all. There has never been an athlete more lavishly rewarded for a doping violation. Sharapova earned an estimated NZ$ 29 million in endorsements over 12 months, despite not playing a single match. Head, her racquet- maker, was among the most risibly craven of all, airbrushing the folly of her transgression to coin the social media hashtag # WeStandWithMaria.
The crux of Sharapova’s unabashed efforts at rehabilitation is that she has yet to display even an ounce of remorse.
Sharapova would desperately like her restoration to be portrayed as a stirring redemption song. This much was evident from her reaction to beating Simona Halep at this month’s US Open: “Behind all these Swarovski crystals and little black dresses, this girl has a lot of grit and she’s not going anywhere.” It was another vintage of her oeuvre, combing a reference to her supposed fragility with a tacky plug for her outfit. For all the arguments that she showed humility at her Los Angeles press conference to confirm her mistake, consider her stunt — pulled just six weeks later — in wearing a shirt that bore the slogan: “Back in five minutes.”
Still this most unrepentant of divas persists in the sacrificial- lamb act, trying to win back public affection not with penance but with a battering ram of hubris. Her abiding motivation from this day forward, she declares, is to make her detractors “eat their words”. Too late, Maria. You are tainted goods.