Maria Sharapova's image as a golden girl is tarnished forever.
Sullied by a doping scandal, Sharapova's once-pristine brand likely won't recover from this hit.
On Wednesday, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) suspended Sharapova for two years for using a substance banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). In a Facebook post following the announcement, she declared her intention to appeal the suspension, which is backdated to January 26.
The five-time Grand Slam champion announced in March that she tested positive for the drug meldonium, which she claimed to have taken for the past 10 years to treat "several health issues" after consulting with a doctor. The drug was added to WADA's list of banned substances on January 1.
After learning of the ITF's decision Wednesday, Sharapova wrote on Facebook, "With their decision of a two-year suspension, the ITF tribunal unanimously concluded that what I did was not intentional...I cannot accept an unfairly harsh two-year suspension." However, the ITF tribunal that heard her case concluded Sharapova was "the sole author of her misfortune."
The ITF stated, "The Tennis Anti-Doping Programme applies to all players competing at Grand Slam tournaments and events sanctioned by the ITF, ATP, and WTA." This includes megastar, highly endorsed players with garages full of Porsches.
Under ITF rules, players who intentionally use performance-enhancing drugs receive a four-year ban unless they can prove the violation was "not intentional." Because the tribunal could not prove Sharapova intended to cheat, it reduced her suspension to two years.
The "not intentional" determination may save Sharapova a boatload of money. Nike has already reinstated its contract with Sharapova, per ESPN.com's Darren Rovell:
Regardless of what happens with the appeal, her image is irrevocably harmed.
Retired Australian tennis star Pat Cash told SBS, "I think her career and reputation is absolutely shot to bits...The question mark is she has been taking the drugs for so long, how much does it help her get through those hot days in Australia, those long matches in the stinking heat of New York or wherever else it happened to be?"
Some of the findings in the tribunal's 33-page report blow boulder-sized holes in the reasons she claimed to use the drug and why she was unaware of its addition to the list of banned substances.
When she took to the microphone in March, Sharapova led fans and assembled media to believe that this was a mere oversight. However, records her attorneys introduced into testimony undermine those claims, including the reason she began taking Mildronate, the trade name for meldonium.
Sharapova claimed to have suffered from a chronic heart condition and said her former physician, Dr. Anatoly Skalny, initially prescribed Mildronate. However, according to the tribunal report:
...it is important to note that Dr. Skalny was not a cardiologist nor did he advise that Ms. Sharapova had a cardiac condition which required specialist medical attention. Having reviewed the ECG results, Dr. Skalny did not require a treadmill test or any other standard diagnostic approach, which would have been the next logical step if a significant cardiac condition was suspected.
The report also noted Sharapova decided to stop seeing Skalny in 2012 but continued to take meldonium. She reportedly used it six times in seven days at Wimbledon in 2015 and five times in seven days at this year's Australian Open.
In addition to the two-year ban, the tribunal ruled that Sharapova's "results at the 2016 Australian Open should be disqualified, with resulting forfeiture of the ranking points and prize money that she won at that event."
Although the effects of meldonium as a performance-enhancing drug still aren't clear, Sharapova was on the drug for 10 years, which could call into question her entire playing career. As Andy Murray told Simon Cambers of the Guardian in March, "If you’re taking a prescription drug and you’re not using it for what that drug was meant for, then you don’t need it, so you’re just using it for the performance enhancing benefits that drug is giving you."
One of the most damaging things to come out of the report was that with the exception of her agent, Max Eisenbud, Sharapova never informed members of her team that she was taking meldonium:
On the evidence of her manager, this use of Mildronate by Ms. Sharapova was not known to any of Ms. Sharapova’s team, except for her father and, from 2013, Mr. Eisenbud himself. It was not known to her coach, her trainer, her physio who was responsible for recommending recovery drinks during and post match, her nutritionist who was responsible for her food and supplement intake, nor any of the doctors she consulted through the WTA.
So much for Sharapova's detail-oriented, thorough image.
Other athletes, such as Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz and Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, have gone on to regain the public's faith after testing positive for banned substances. However, Ortiz and Miller were not at the end of their careers when they tested positive, nor did they face a two-year ban.
Sharapova turns 30 next year. If the two-year ban stays in place, former world No. 1 and ESPN commentator Chris Evert believes her career is essentially over, as she told USA Today's Nick McCarvel: “I don’t think she can do a two-year ban. I don’t think she can come back. The players are only getting better. The workload, the training is only harder. She has been on tour for 15 years. You just wonder.”
The real damage may be to her legacy.
When tennis experts praise Sharapova, it's usually based on her grit and mental toughness. Rarely does anyone rate her among the best shot-makers like Martina Hingis and Chris Evert. She's not considered among the best grass court players like Martina Navratilova and Venus Williams. She does not have the game's greatest serve of all time like Serena Williams. She's not a superior athlete like Steffi Graf.
The intangibles that define Sharapova's career are suddenly questionable. Would she have finished off Simona Halep in the third set of the 2014 French Open without meldonium? How many titles would she have without it? How many of those comebacks were fueled by it?
The answers to those questions are inconclusive, especially when accounting for the unconfirmed effects of meldonium. But since they're being asked, that alone taints her legacy.
When she upset Serena Williams at Wimbledon in 2004, Sharapova became one of the brightest stars in tennis history. Diminished by scandal, it's unlikely she'll ever shine that brightly again.