With her third-round win against Lauren Davis, the former champion broke through the 600th match-win barrier, a figure that only 16 other women had ever reached.
But when Sharapova was told the news, she seemed non-plussed: “I’ve won 600 matches? Oh boy. Is this like a friendly reminder that I’m getting older?”
It was an off-the-cuff remark, but only a few days ago, she pulled out of yet another tournament with injury, the first Premier Mandatory of the year in Indian Wells, so the news from her agent that Sharapova would be holding a press conference in Los Angeles to make “a major announcement” had fans and the media putting together two and two and making five.
Given that she had played just a handful of matches since Wimbledon, this latest injury pointed to an announcement of retirement. But it proved to be nothing of the sort.
A hush fell over an already hushed conference room when she stepped up to the microphone and said: “I wanted to let you know that a few days ago I received a letter from the ITF that I had failed a drug test at the Australian Open. I take full responsibility for it.”
She went on to explain the circumstances.
“For the last 10 years, I’ve been give a medicine called mildronate by the family doctor and a few days ago I found out that it also has another name of meldonium.
“It’s very important for you to understand that for 10 years this medicine was not on WADA’s [World Anti-doping Agency] banned list and I had been legally taking the medicine for the last 10 years.
“On 1 January, the rules had changed and meldonium had become a prohibited substance which I had not known.”
Sharapova remained remarkably calm during her live-streamed announcement, but now paused to take a deep breath.
“Through my long career I have been very open and honest about many things, and I take great responsibility and professionalism in my job every single day. And I made a huge mistake, and I’ve let my fans down and let down the sport that I’ve been playing since the age of four that I love so deeply.”
For a woman aged just 28 years old, Sharapova has packed in a lot of success—five Grand Slams among 35 career titles—and has faced and overcome many injury time-outs.
She won her first Major at Wimbledon in 2004, aged 17. She became world No1 while still a teenager in 2005, and eventually claimed a career Grand Slam after winning the US Open in 2006, the Australian in 2008 and the French in 2012, where she regained the No1 ranking. Add in the WTA Championships in 2004, the Fed Cup in 2008 and a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics, and there is little that Sharapova has not achieved.
And yet, were it not for so many injuries, including shoulder surgery, there may have been much more. Retirement, then, did not seem out of the question, but she was quick to quash the rumours, and did so with a certain amount of commendable wit in the circumstances.
“I know there are consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way and I really hope that I will be given another chance to play this game. I know many of you thought I was thinking of retiring but if I was ever going to announce my retirement, it would probably not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this [smiling] fairly ugly carpet.”
She then explained the reason for taking this particular medication.
“I was first given the substance in 2006. I had several health issues going on at the time, I was getting sick very often. I had a deficiency in magnesium, I had irregular ECG results and a family history of diabetes, with the first signs of diabetes, and that’s one of the medications along with several others that I received.”
She added: “It made me healthy, that’s why I continued to take it.”
The problem seems to have arisen because this particular medication was added just this year to the list of banned drugs, but Sharapova refused to point any finger of blame for not noticing the change.
“I received an email on 22 December from WADA about the changes to the banned list with a link, and I didn’t click on that link.
“I have to take full responsibility because it’s my body and it’s what I put into my body and I can’t blame anybody but myself, no matter who I’m working with. I think it’s very important to have a great team around you with coaches and doctors, but in the end, everything you do is about you.”
Asked if she knew what the consequence would be of her failed test, she admitted: “I do not. This is very new to me. I received the letter a few days ago, and I will be working with the ITF. I don’t know yet [when I’ll be back on the tour] because it depends on the process with the ITF.
“I’m still working through my injury and that’s the reason I withdrew from Palm Springs, because I have not healed my injury.”
Currently ranked No7, and now unlikely to play for months to come while the ITF deliberates—though one must assume there will some leniency in the case of an athlete who has been taking this substance under medical advice for a decade—Sharapova now faces one the toughest seasons in a career of many tough seasons, one that will test her emotional as much as her physical strength.
The ITF said that Sharapova will be “provisionally suspended with effect from 12 March, pending determination of the case.”
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