Early Monday morning, the sports media thought Maria Sharapova was about to retire. Wow, were they in for surprise.
Instead of announcing she was hanging up her tennis shoes, an emotional Sharapova told media gathered at a Los Angeles press conference that she had failed a drug test nearly two months ago at the Australian Open. It was hailed as a communications grand slam by experts; she broke the story herself, kept her composure, and carefully and professionally walked through the complexities of the case.
And the issue is complicated - much more so than the classic doping allegations against many champion sprinters and cyclists and steroid use by baseball players. Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, which she claimed she has used for 10 years for various medical issues. It was only recently added to professional tennis’ banned list. This wasn’t Mark McGwire stonewalling in front of Congress.
Still, it’s hard not to be cynical. A professional tennis player, and one who is herself a $29 million business, has plenty of medical advisers, handlers, and helpers who should be keeping track of banned substances. Adding fuel to the fire was a report by The Times of London that claimed Sharapova was warned five times by authorities that she was taking a banned substance.
Sponsors Porsche, Nike, and Tag Heuer – the brands that pay a good chunk of her estimated $29 million salary – cut ties with Sharapova within two days of her announcement, suggesting they may have been given a heads up about what was to come. Some sports marketing experts also believe Nike stuck by disgraced Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong too long, and may have taken a "better safe than sorry" approach this time. (Tennis equipment brand Head, meanwhile, said it was not only sticking with Sharapova, but would like to extend its contract with her).
Sharapova’s goal was likely less to stop the short-term bleeding – surely she knew one positive test is one too many for some sponsors – and more to help her cause long-term with fans, sanctioning bodies, and potential new sponsors, assuming there’s no second positive test.
She may have put on a communications master class, but only time – and playing within the lines – will tell if it was truly a success.
Frank Washkuch is news editor at PRWeek.