One can only assume she doesn’t realise it, but nothing widens the credibility gap with Maria Sharapova quite so much as the manner of her return. As always with the women’s tour’s most bankable star, who returns to tennis next week after a 15-month doping ban, not a single thing has been left to chance, and no moment of opportunity has been left unexploited.
Sharapova will appear on court at the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart next week – a wildcard entry on the day her ban expires – and to coincide with this her management have coordinated a veritable blitzkrieg of micromanaged synergies. The carefully placed interviews, the speaking engagements, an announced development in her confectionery line, the release of the front cover of her forthcoming autobiography … each day brings a new and meticulously planned announcement. And the more relentless it is, the more awesomely professional, the harder it is to believe these are the sort of people to make a doping cock-up. Why didn’t they know? It was literally their business to know.
Maybe Team Sharapova have always been so busy giving interviews about how amazingly brand-focused they are that not one has the time for boring little emails from the World Anti-Doping Agency. Maybe. The alternative is to be reminded of the Team Sky/British Cycling set-up, where the very best of the best take care of every tiny little thing – except keeping basic medical records. Honestly, you go to all that trouble shaving milliseconds off here and there, then you plunge your set-up into a long-running, debilitating scandal that must wipe out every one of those gains and more. What are the chances? As with Sharapova, the public must decide whether such glaring oversights are amazingly unprofessional or simply incredible in context.
It is probably wise not to expect too much more daylight to be let in on magic when Maria’s book hits the shelves this September. In the first teaser for Unstoppable – released this week, of course – Sharapova hints otherwise, declaring: “I talk to reporters but I never tell everything I know.” On that we can all agree. “This is a story about sacrifice, about what you have to give up. But it’s also just the story of a girl and her father and their crazy adventure.” Does it turn out to be about not the glittering prize but instead about the friends they met along the way? No. Not if the simmering outrage about Sharapova’s return from some quarters of the Women’s Tennis Association locker room is anything to go by.
There is no direct mention in the blurb of Sharapova’s doping ban or the circumstances around it – it is simply repackaged as “her recent fight to get back on the court”. Which feels a little like characterising a spell at Her Majesty’s pleasure as “a fight to get back home”. It certainly underscores the line she took during a recent appearance at the ANA Inspiring Women in Sports conference, where she said of her appeal against a lengthier ban for a doping offence, “that’s why I fought so hard for the truth to be out”.
Thank you, Erin Brockovich. If you’re resisting the idea that the 11-times world’s highest-paid female athlete Maria Sharapova has to fight every inch against a system stacked against her, you should probably just chill out and submit. Unless you’re the International Tennis Federation, at whose door she graciously decided to put some of the blame for her taking a banned substance. “Why didn’t someone [from the ITF] come up to me and have a private conversation,” she wondered in a Times interview at the weekend, “just an official to an athlete?” The ITF has responded it was unaware she took meldonium but will doubtless have been grateful for yet another reminder the business was all somehow its fault.
As far as Sharapova’s management are concerned, though, the deep waters of euphemism have already closed over the phrase “drugs ban”. It is now officially “a situation like that” or “that type of year”. As her agent puts it: “I think it’s a real credit to what we’ve done beforehand, to be able to sustain that type of year.” The managing director of her sweets firm describes Team Sharapova’s performance as “a textbook in years to come in how to credibly and honourably deal with a situation like that. And I think the results show how professionally they handled it.” Well quite. They really couldn’t have been more professional. You know, except with that one thing.
Still, their undoubted skill has been deployed to encourage many commentators to put the kindest possible interpretation on an unfortunate set of facts. Consider the glowing Times interview with Sharapova, which remarked: “To her credit, she didn’t parcel out blame. No one got fired. And throughout this ban, all the principal members of her team have stayed with her.” I can’t help feeling there’s more than one way to look at that, no matter how professionally they work to convince us otherwise.