On Monday afternoon, tennis star Maria Sharapova held a press conference to announce that she had tested positive for the drug meldonium at the Australian Open. She claimed to have been taking the drug for ten years for other health issues but did not make herself aware of the updated list from the World Anti Doping Agency which had added the substance to the banned list on the first of the year. Sharapova took full responsibility for not educating herself and said she was prepared to face the consequences of her actions.
What this now leads to is the question of where tennis goes without arguably its biggest star.
Since bursting onto the scene when she beat Serena Williams at Wimbledon, Sharapova has gone on to become the highest paid female athlete in the world. At 28 years old, she is a five-time Grand Slam champion and Olympic Silver medalist.
She also completed a Career Grand Slam by winning the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and U.S. Open in her career.
While injuries have taken her off the tour for extended periods in recent years, there is now the possibility of Sharapova being absent for up to four years.
Sharapova has been at the forefront of tennis for so many years that she is part of the culture. Her Sugarpova candy brand is now a feature around events. Her familiar grunts are so much a part of her game that Novak Djokovic’s viral imitations of her are punctuated by them.
Now, with Sharapova out beyond the foreseeable future, it removes her presence in several ways from the tour. Already, major sponsors Nike and Porsche have suspended their partnership with her. It is unlikely that there will be much Sugarpova around Indian Wells this coming week as well.
Competitively, it removes a perennial top-five player from the draw. While the top-ten will simply shift to fill her place, it takes one of the biggest names off the schedule at every tournament. Television broadcasts are punctuated by big names and Sharapova’s matches are put of the ratings at every major tournament. Her absence is also a blow to fans as the Russian has an enormous following around the globe.
Serena Williams, on a typical day, is the best player on the tour. But, only Sharapova comes close to generating the same level of casual fan interest. Top five players like Simona Halep and Agnieszka Radwanska make deep runs at tournaments, but they do not command the financial numbers to tennis that Maria brings.
The search for the heir apparent hasn’t been easy either. Victoria Azarenka found Grand Slam success before Williams knocked her from the top of the rankings. Eugenie Bouchard looked to be the next superstar when she made consecutive semifinals in Australia and Paris in 2014 with a finals appearance at Wimbledon the same year. Bouchard has benefitted from having the same off-court appeal as Sharapova, but her 2015 season saw her fall out of title contention as well.
Finding an all-in-one superstar isn’t just difficult, it’s nearly once in a generation.
Exactly how long Sharapova will be gone has yet to be seen. As was explained by Sharapova’s lawyer on Monday, intentionally taking performance enhancing drugs is met with a four year ban. Unintentionally taking the drugs results in a two year ban while “mitigating circumstances” could it much shorter.
For the immediate future, the game will survive without Maria Sharapova. But until she returns, the question is how will the tennis world react to being without their favorite superstar.