How do you solve a problem like Maria Sharapova?

She is a bigger hitter for her sponsorship deals than for her tennis. After her drug-test failure and apology, what next for the highest-earning woman in sport?

It was a classic Maria Sharapova power play: it had control, pace, pinpoint accuracy and judicious spin. When the world's wealthiest woman athlete spoke in a Los Angeles hotel on Monday night to announce that she had failed a drug test at this year's Australian Open she was, in PR jargon, getting in front of the story.

The tennis star, commendably, didn’t throw one of her team under the bus for failing to recognise that a substance she had been taking for 10 years was, as of this year, on the banned list. Instead she accepted full responsibility – and squeezed into the tightly scripted narrative some pre-emptive calls for leniency in the punishment that now awaits her.

But this wasn’t just another athlete failing a drug test. Issues of gender, race, marketing, sponsorship and sporting integrity have been swirling around all week. A clear division quickly emerged between those who think Sharapova was refreshingly honest in owning up to her negligence and those who view her as just another lying drug cheat.

Every year for the past decade the twenty-eight-year-old has been the highest-paid woman in any sport, despite the fact that almost 80 per cent of her earnings come not from prize money but from lucrative endorsement deals.


White, blond, photogenic, American-accented: Sharapova is like a focus-grouped ideal of a female athlete. But complaining about the fact that she generates far more money than Serena Williams, the world number one, is as pointless as noting that David Beckham has earned more money than the better footballer Paul Scholes.

Sharapova (who has also been the world number one at several points in her career) is one of the elite few to complete a career grand slam by winning all four major titles: Wimbledon and the Australian, French and US Opens. Russian by birth, Sharapova has lived in the US since she was seven; one of the loudest grunters in the game, she is a magnificent player who wages a war of attrition against her opponents.

She is by her own admission not a popular figure on the tour; she once said: “I’m not close to other players. Just because you’re in the same sport it doesn’t mean you have to be friends.”

Body image

When Sharapova talks about refusing to do weight work and wanting to stay “slim”, she feeds into the notion of an ideal feminine body – one that runs contrary to the best physique for success in tennis. It also suits the cash-rich sport – of the 10 top-earning women athletes last year, nine were tennis players – which still refers to women as ladies and has an almost toxic sense of white, middle-class entitlement.

Race also became an issue this week. “Maria Sharapova failed a drug test, and the way the media and society is treating the situation is a classic case of white privilege,” ran one comment. Many more said that Sharapova’s being lauded for her “brave honesty” suggested a racial bias.

Serena and Venus Williams, who are not from a traditional tennis background and have the audacity to be black and brilliant, are regularly the subject of gross innuendo about their physiques.

One of Sharapova's loudest defenders this week, the Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpischev, was himself banned for a year and fined $25,000 in 2014 for his public slurs on the Williams sisters' femininity.

Others questioned whether Sharapova should have been allowed to handle the story in the way that she did. On the Overheadspin blog Karen Williams wrote: “Am I the only person who thought on an occasion as solemn as announcing that you have failed a drug test that you take the opportunity to be critical of the hotel carpeting?

"Am I also the only one who thinks that the ITF" – the International Tennis Federation – "allowed Sharapova and her team to announce the failed drug test in a way that mitigates the damage to her image?"

Williams also notes that the four players Sharapova beat in this year’s Australian Open – while she was playing with a banned substance in her system – might have a case for action against the star.

Nike sponsorship

Of the estimated $30 million that Sharapova earns each year, about $23 million comes from sponsorship and endorsement deals. It came as shock to many to see how quickly the sports company Nike – whose deal is worth $70 million over eight years – froze Sharapova out: within hours it announced that its sponsorship was “suspended”. But Nike continues to sponsor the US track athlete Justin Gatlin, who has twice been banned for drug offences.

Other sponsors to suspend their deals with Sharapova include Porsche and the Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer. “We’re now entering a zero-tolerance era for sponsors,” Rupert Pratt, founder of the sports sponsorship agency Generate, says. “It is now seen as not acceptable to ‘stand by your man’, because of the amount of scrutiny corporates are now under.”

The beleaguered sport of tennis is already internally investigating allegations of match-fixing at tournaments. The golden girl testing positive has now called into question its drug policy.

You know the sport has a problem when Roger Federer publicly demands to be tested more often: "I'm always surprised when I win a tournament, I walk off the court and it's, like, where's the doping guy? Players need to feel they are going to be tested often." Or when it turns out that Martin Cilic, the 2014 grand-slam winner, failed a drug test in 2013 but that the result was not made public at the time.

Bizarrely, in 2009 the French player Richard Gasquet was given a provisional one-year ban for testing positive for cocaine. He was cleared when he told authorities that it must have entered his system after he kissed a girl in a nightclub.

Not contesting

Sharapova will shortly face a tribunal to learn her punishment. She is not contesting that she tested positive for the now banned medication Meldonium, and the consensus among experts is that she will not face the standard two- or four-year ban that athletes routinely receive for failing a drug test.

The feeling in the Sharapova camp is that a ban of a year or less is “achievable” if the player can show she had no intention of cheating. There is also the possibility that Sharapova can produce a retroactive therapeutic-use exemption, which would state that she is allowed take a banned substance for clear medical reasons. In that case the charge would be dropped completely.

It is perhaps worth noting that Maria Sharapova has one of the best three-set records in the history of tennis. When it goes to a decider she usually wins.