LOS ANGELES • Tennis was on Monday dealt another major blow after former world No. 1 Maria Sharapova became the most prominent player to test positive for a banned substance in recent years.
Early reports have speculated that the five-time Grand Slam champion could be banned for one year for testing positive for meldonium, even though the International Tennis Federation's anti-doping programme calls for a four-year suspension.
Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpishchev even suggested that he expects the world No. 7 to represent her country at this year's Olympics in Brazil despite being provisionally suspended from the game.
The four-year ban can be reduced due to mitigating factors and observers have noted that it will be interesting to see how punitive the ITF's anti-doping tribunal will be during a difficult time for the sport.
In recent weeks, there have been concerns about the extent of corruption in tennis and the lack of transparency at the ITF, the governing body of the sport. Authorities were accused of a cover-up following BBC and BuzzFeed allegations in January about match-fixing.
"Even if the tribunal is sympathetic to Sharapova's arguments, one wonders if tennis can afford to show leniency to such a high-profile star, especially at such a sensitive time for the sport's public image," wrote The Telegraph's tennis correspondent Simon Briggs.
EXPLOITING A LOOPHOLE IS CHEATING
I had to lose my career and never opted to cheat no matter what. I had to throw in the towel and suffer. I didn't have the high-priced team of (doctors) that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up.
JENNIFER CAPRIATI, former tennis women's world No. 1, on Sharapova's use of a performance-enhancing drug. Capriati was arrested for possession of marijuana, and spent time in rehab in 1994.
• Born April 19, 1987 in Nyagan, Russia. Moved to Florida in 1996 to train at Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy.
• Winner of five Grand Slams: Wimbledon 2004, US Open 2006, Australian Open 2008, French Open 2012 and 2014.
• Became first Russian woman to win Wimbledon in 2004 aged 17, beating Serena Williams 6-1, 6-4 in the final.
• Became first Russian woman to reach the world No. 1 ranking in August 2005.
• Forbes estimated that she made almost US$30 million (S$41.5 million) last year, with US$23 million from endorsements, making her the world's highest-paid female athlete for the 11th year running.
• Before her failed dope test, she was the world's most marketable athlete, with sponsors including Porsche, Head, TAG Heuer, Avon, Evian and Nike.
• Owns her own high-end gummy sweet brand, Sugarpova, which was launched in 2012 and sells in 22 countries.
• With more than 15 million fans, she is the most followed female athlete on Facebook.
What is meldonium?
• Meldonium is used to treat ischaemia: a lack of blood flow to parts of the body.
• It is manufactured in Latvia and not approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States.
• It increases blood flow which improves exercise capacity in athletes.
• It is also known as mildronate, the name by which Maria Sharapova knew the drug, having taken it since 2006.
• The World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) found "evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance".
• The decision to add meldonium to the banned list was approved on Sept 16, 2015, and it came into effect on Jan 1 this year.
• It is classed as an S4 substance under the Wada code, which addresses hormone and metabolic modulators.
According to Dr Stanley Chia, a cardiologist at the Asian Heart and Vascular Centre based in Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, meldonium is not available for prescription here.
"It has not undergone worldwide trials and is therefore not available in Singapore," he told The Straits Times.
"It is a metabolic moderator, which helps heart muscles to use energy more efficiently, enhancing and strengthening it. We generally prescribe metabolic moderators to patients with weak hearts.
"Many clinical drugs, for example beta blockers and insulin, are banned by Wada as they help muscles use energy more effectively."
As for Sharapova's claim that she was prescribed the drug partly due to a family history of diabetes and a magnesium deficiency, Dr Chia said that he could not comment without knowing her detailed medical history.
"However," he said, "it is not a drug that is usually prescribed for diabetes."
While meldonium itself is not available in Singapore, the drug Vastarel, also a metabolic modulator, is prescribed here and in Europe for conditions like angina (chest pain). Its key ingredient, trimetazidine, is also on Wada's banned list.
• Additional reporting by Aleysa John
"On the upside, the very fact that Sharapova's positive test has not been suppressed should help stave off accusations that the sport is institutionally corrupt."
The Daily Mail's Mike Dickson, however, believes that "it will be of little consolation to the authorities that anti-doping measures have landed a big name".
"The fact that she was allowed to make her own announcement, to take control of the narrative, is an illustration of how the game is so deferential to its leading stars," he wrote.
American tennis great Andre Agassi failed a drugs test in 1997, testing positive for crystal methamphetamine. But he was let off by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) with a warning after he said he had accidentally sipped his assistant's spiked drink. In his autobiography after retirement, he admitted that the claim was a lie.
Croatia's Marin Cilic was banned for nine months in 2013 after testing positive for a prohibited stimulant, though the suspension was cut to four months on appeal.
Former world No. 1 Martina Hingis retired after receiving a two-year ban for a positive cocaine test in 2007, though the Swiss denied taking the drug which is generally not viewed as performance-enhancing.
Last year, the sport banned US player Wayne Odesnik for 15 years after his second doping violation, testing positive for steroids and other banned substances.
The reaction from within the tennis world has been largely sympathetic towards Sharapova - with the exception of three-time Grand Slam champion Jennifer Capriati.
"I had to lose my career and never opted to cheat no matter what," Capriati, who left the women's tour in the mid-1990s in part because of recreational drug problems, tweeted, without mentioning Sharapova by name. "I had to throw in the towel and suffer. I didn't have the high priced team of (doctors) that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up."
Sharapova told a news conference on Monday that she had been taking meldonium for health problems on medical advice since 2006, and through her own negligence, failed to realise it had been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list this year.
"What's the point of someone taking a heart medicine that helps your heart recover faster unless you have a heart condition? Is that accurate," Capriati added. "In my opinion (if) it's all true every title should be stripped. This is other people's lives as well."
Retired American star James Blake, however, felt that Sharapova handled the scandal well.
"Wow. Classy of @MariaSharapova to hold a press conference for this and admit making a mistake," tweeted the former world No. 4. "Definitely agree that have to be aware though."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS