Opening Moves

In chess, opening moves are often a key to success in winning. That’s especially true if a player employs the queen, the most powerful piece on the board, early in the game.

In the chess game of her career up until a few days ago, few would have disputed that Maria Sharapova was a master tactician. Every decision, especially in her lucrative off-court dealings, appeared planned down to the manicured minutiae of perfect timing for optimum result.

But Sharapova’s most recent first move to date may be the most important of her career.

The hurriedly announced, yet completely airtight in terms of leaks, press conference on Monday had the entire tennis world abuzz. While many expected the Russian superstar to announce her retirement, that theory was immediately shot down. Especially by Sharapova herself after quipping that she would never break such news in a dowdy downtown Los Angeles hotel conference room with, as she put it, such “fairly ugly carpet”.

No, Maria’s bombshell announcement instead was that that she had failed a drug test.

In a carefully prepared and read statement, Sharapova revealed the ITF informed her that she failed a drug test for the ingredient Meldonium. This substance, found in a Russian medication that Sharapova took for 10 years, was just added to WADA’s banned substance list at the start of 2016.

Sharapova admitted, that although she did receive an official email with a link listing that meldonium would be soon prohibited; she did not click on the link.

“I made a huge mistake. I let my fans down, I let the sport down,” she said. “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.”

After Sharapova’s announcement, the ITF posted their own official summary along with saying that the tennis star would be provisionally suspended beginning on March 12. How long Sharapova remains suspended is still to be determined. That Sharapova owned up to the mistake will likely prevent her from receiving a lengthy ban; she is more likely looking at a one to two year suspension, unless her legal team is able to negotiate better terms.

But despite her carefully staged mea culpa, bad carpet included, the tennis superstar is already facing immediate fallout both in the public eye and from several sponsors who have decided to distance themselves publicly from her.

Even though Sharapova made the first move in revealing her big mistake, questions remain, with the answers to many of them likely not being revealed for a long time, if ever.

Why was Sharapova, who with her immense wealth and resources, still relying as she put it on just a “family doctor” to advise her to keep taken the medication? If her condition was ongoing, could she not have found alternative treatments either in Europe or the United States? Especially given that the ingredient’s manufacturer recently advised only using it for up to four to six weeks. Not ten years.

While Sharapova was right in accepting full responsibility, why didn’t she simply read the email? Was she really that busy? Or was it just personal hubris that got in the way? No one from Sharapova’s team of lawyers, managers, handlers, etc. saw the email either. Call it negligence or call it an honest mistake, that’s a massive breakdown on all sides when it involvs something as serious as adhering to drug policies for her sport.

And on top of that, why didn’t she or anyone from her team pay attention last year when Russia’s anti-doping authority issued a warning that the ingredient would be added to the prohibited list? To be fair, Sharapova wasn’t the only one who apparently ignored it as several other Russian athletes have also been suspended due to the substance.

Who was the press conference really for? That answer is easy. It certainly wasn’t for the ITF. They already knew. No, this was an attempt to win an opening round in the all-important court of public opinion. Did it work? Depends. While Sharapova’s many fans came to her defense, many other tennis fans heard the words “failed drug test” and made up their own minds. The bigger problem for Sharapova is in the resulting media coverage; the word “doper” or “doping” was used in multiple stories. People who know who Sharapova is, but don’t follow the sport day to day, won’t bother reading the fine print of what actually happened. They’ll just wonder why she did it and what her punishment will be.

Several other players have endured their own recent trials by fire in failing a drug test only to bounce back. While the system worked in that Sharapova was caught, how she is punished may end up putting tennis authorities under their own trial, especially if the view is Sharapova will get preferential treatment due to her elevated star status.

Sharapova will likely get to return to tour sooner rather than later, and also find that her now hand-wringing sponsors will once again embrace her with open arms. But this episode will still leave her overall legacy if not damaged, then tarnished somewhat. Like a smudge of mud on an otherwise gleaming silver service set.

Sharapova may have made the opening move. But, like many chess games, the ultimate result may end up on how many pieces she still has left to play with in this very high stakes game. How she and her legal team present themselves and their case, especially to the media, may have a bigger impact on how Sharapova’s name and brand is ultimately perceived long after the tennis authorities pass final judgement.

While tennis recently dealt, and continues to deal, with the issue of betting in the sport, the issue of doping and, in this case, failure to adhere to drug testing rules, is now back front and center. Many expected the day would come when a huge star, perhaps one of the biggest, would have to face questions about either doping or failing a drug test, even if by honest accident. Many wondered how not only that star would handle the situation and survive, but also the sport and it’s many interconnected organizations and venues dependent on those stars for continued growth and success.

That day is now.

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