In the 141-year-old sport of tennis, there is the presumption of innocence—the sport has always had a clean image and reputation. For one, players do not hurt each other, as research on brain damage is not linked to this game. There are no “illegal hits to the head,” or “red cards,” and seldom do ejections occur. Fans do not boo, curse, throw trash, or taunt each other—have you ever seen a tennis fan chugging beer in the stands? Players compete against one another on the court, not through physical altercation, trash talk, or Twitter. Tennis is a game that has class.
But now, apparently, drugs?
On March 7, five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova announced that she had failed a drug test for the Australian Open in January. The drug she had been taking, Mildronate, had just been placed on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substance list near the end of 2015. The drug treats those who have inadequate blood flow to all parts of the body. Some experts in the medical field do believe that the drug enhances athletic performance. However, many other doctors agree that it is not entirely clear whether the drug actually improves the athlete. Sharapova was prescribed Mildronate by her doctor in 2005 while dealing with minor heart issues. The Russian tennis star was quick to acknowledge her actions and apologize to her fans for her mistake. “I take great responsibility and professionalism in my career every day,” Sharapova said. “I made a huge mistake. I let my fans down. I let my sport down.” Sharapova is awaiting the official verdict on her suspension. For now, she is provisionally banned from participating in the sport.
Back at Princeton High School, the season for the boys tennis team is in full swing. The team members practice daily on the school courts. When they are not hitting balls, they are hitting the weight room. As high school athletes practice every day to improve, it can be unnerving to see a role model to the sport put her classy reputation in jeopardy. PHS tennis player Noah Lilienthal ’18 took the time to reflect on Sharapova’s mistake. “I was surprised and disappointed for tennis and Maria Sharapova,” Lilienthal said. “I always admired her as a player and it is a shame that she got caught for something like this. It’s also a shame for the sport to lose such a good player. She had such a great career and it is terrible that it could all come down to this.”
It is important to note that the incident does not merely affect tennis on the professional level—it also affects the future of tennis. Youth players across the globe, including the athletes at PHS, train routinely to improve their game and, with luck and perseverance, play the sport competitively in college and beyond. It can be devastating for a young tennis player to see a professional essentially cut corners to achieve success. “I really think this one was on her,” Lilienthal said. “She claims that she didn’t see the banned list, but I think she has to pay for this one.”
As with every controversial event in the unpredictable world of sports, there is another side to the story. Nobody truly knows whether Sharapova took the prescribed drug to enhance her play on the court, or simply because her doctor had advised her to take it. Sharapova claimed that she inadvertently failed to read an email she received about the new additions to the WADA’s Prohibited List for 2016. Through all of the chaos in this debacle, PHS tennis player Eric Lin ’17 believes that Sharapova was taking a drug that should not have been added to the list in the first place. “I think the World Anti-Doping Agency needs to do more research on the drugs to see if they are actually performance enhancing,” Lin said. “In Maria Sharapova’s case, it was a drug that she actually needed. There are some drugs that are used just for performance enhancement like anabolic steroids. With the drug Sharapova took, there is still debate on whether it is actually performance enhancing.”
Another concept that puts Sharapova in a better limelight than athletes of doping scandals from the past is how she handled the situation. In 2004, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds was investigated for the use of an anabolic steroid after breaking first baseman Mark McGwire’s single-season home run record at the impressive age of 36 in 2001. As allegations and accusations gained momentum, Bonds repeatedly denied his steroid use. Continual lying made Bonds’s downfall extremely condemning in 2007. Despite breaking the single-season home run record, he has not been selected to the Baseball Hall of Fame due to his denial of using drugs. Unlike Bonds, Sharapova was honest about failing the test and took it upon herself to announce it.
“I think Sharapova handled her situation very well,” Lin said. “After she was caught, she held her own press conference, agreeing that she actually took the drug. This is different from many other cases because a lot of times in professional sports, players try to hide what they are doing.”
As the world of sports awaits the International Tennis Federation’s verdict, it is clear that there are many arguments for and against Sharapova and that the ITF has many possible disciplinary options. However, one strikingly possible outcome looms: Tennis could very well lose an international star, as well as its sparkling reputation that has never truly been damaged, until now.