Quick — who’s the No. 2 female tennis player in the world?
No looking it up. Right off the top of your head.
If you guessed Maria Sharapova, you would be wrong. If you guessed Angelique Kerber, you’re probably a hardcore tennis nut who can explain both the points system and the Fed Cup format, neither of which most of the world can explain.
But the fact that Kerber, who won her first Grand Slam title at the age of 28 this year by capturing the Australian Open singles title, is second, followed by Agnieszka Radwanska and then Garbine Muguruza, tells you something about the state of the women’s tennis tour right now.
None are big, marquee names. None would be known outside the sport of tennis.
That’s why Sharapova’s sensational news on Monday that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open after losing to Serena Williams on Jan. 26 was both a bombshell and potentially a devastating piece of news for the WTA. There had been rampant speculation that she was going to announce her retirement, but instead she had a different bulletin for the tennis world.
Simply put, the women’s tour can’t afford to lose Sharapova for an extended period of time or have her become damaged goods with a sullied reputation for using performance enhancing drugs. In this case, she’s admitted using a banned substance, so now it’s about how she can explain herself, and how that explanation is accepted.
So Monday’s announcement, clearly an effort by the media-savvy Sharapova to get ahead of this issue, really is just the beginning of the story.
For starters, the New York Times reported that Sharapova is at least the seventh Russian athlete to test positive this year for the banned substance meldonium, a drug Sharapova says she was taking under a different name with a prescription from her doctor. In fact, earlier Monday a Russian ice dancer said she had tested positive for the drug.
The World Anti-Doping Agency put it on its banned list Jan. 1 because there were allegations it was being used for performance enhancement.
Sharapova, 28, has long been regarded as one of the fiercest competitors in the sport. She said she began taking the drug in 2006 to deal with a variety of health issues, although its primary use is to treat heart-related ailments. She acknowledged having received a notice that the drug was to be banned, but didn’t read it.
"I failed the test and I take full responsibility for it," said Sharapova. "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."
Since testing positive, she has not played a competitive match, citing a forearm injury.
With tennis already rattled earlier this year by allegations of match fixing, this story comes at a most inopportune time for the sport. The fact that it was Sharapova who announced her own positive drug test, not the WTA or ITF, is in and of itself curious and opens the industry to questions about who is in charge of such matters.
Sharapova is a five-time Grand Slam champion who surprised most observers by winning the 2012 and ’14 French Open, succeeding on clay what most, including herself, felt she was ill-suited to do.
Those achievements will now be brought under closer scrutiny, although the drug in question was not banned by WADA during those years. She won Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 2004, then didn’t win a major again until capturing the U.S. Open in September 2006, which is when she said she started taking the drug.
She then won the Australian Open in 2008, and then later, the two French Opens. She has been forced to deal with shoulder problems several times in her career.
Sharapova is the richest female athlete in the world, making many more times as much in annual endorsement contracts as she does in actual prize money, although she potentially lost a big one after Nike announced it has suspended ties with the Russian star. Her image has been mostly spotless over the past decade, outside of a nasty spat with Williams believed to be over Grigor Dimitrov, and she along with the Williams sisters remains among the biggest draws in the sport, not just the women’s game.
She did well to break the news herself and to acknowledge she’s prepared to accept a suspension, which could knock her out of the Rio Olympics.
But this drug raises lots of questions as to why, precisely, she was taking the drug, even if it wasn’t banned at the time, and why she’s been claiming an injury has kept her out for weeks.
"I hope it’s an honest mistake," tweeted former star Martina Navratilova.
Sharapova is the biggest tennis star ever to have to deal with a serious drug allegation, one that she has admitted to. In 2008, Martina Hingis was handed a two-year ban for using cocaine, although she was retired at the time. She has since returned to WTA doubles competition, winning the Australian Open this year with partner Sania Mirza.
On the men’s side Marin Cilic received a nine-month suspension in 2013 for using a banned substance that was later reduced to four months. He then went on to win the 2014 U.S. Open.
In 2009, Richard Gasquet of France received a two-year suspension for cocaine use, but later had it reduced to two months and 15 days after a tribunal accepted his story that he had ingested the drug after kissing a woman at a nightclub.
Rumours of performance-enhancing drug use have swirled around the sport and certain players for years, but until Sharapova, none had touched the top players in the world.
Professional players on both tours are subject to both in-competition and out-of-competition tests. Top 50 singles players and top 10 doubles players are required to give their whereabouts regularly so they can be available for testing.
Players like Williams, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have been tested 10 or more times in a single calendar year by the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme.
Still, there remain questions about what happens to the results. Now that a major star has been snared, perhaps out of ignorance, it will only heighten focus on drug testing in tennis.
That could be a good thing. But as more information comes out about Sharapova’s situation, and as we learn what type of suspension she is to receive, the damage to the women’s tour could be significant at a time when it is at a low ebb.
The women’s game desperately needs new, compelling stars. There was great hope Canada’s Eugenie Bouchard could be such a player, but she’s fallen well back in the rankings.
The last thing thing the WTA needs is to lose one of the two biggest stars it has left.