Maria play­ing favourite game: cash­ing in on scan­dal

Pres­sure cooker:

Weekend Herald - - KRIS SHANNON'S WORLD OF SPORT - Oliver Brown

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.

Pic­ture: AP / Her­ald graphic

Pic­ture / AP

Maria Shara­pova.

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