Maria Sharapova topped the list for the world’s highest earning female athlete for 11 consecutive years. Not that she has ever been the world’s best female athlete. She isn’t even the best in her own sport. You measure tennis players by their grand-slam singles titles: Sharapova has five, Serena Williams 21.
But Sharapova pulled off the win-double of the bimbo-champion, and that’s where the money is. Williams could win another hundred slams and still lag behind Sharapova as an earner, because she’s not even a bit blonde.
Before Sharapova won Wimbledon at 17, Anna Kournikova had shown how it was done. Kournikova earned pots more than infinitely better players because she was a world-class pouter. Sharapova is ten times the player Kournikova ever was: that made her own rather calculated pouting even more profitable.
But now she’s blown it. Comprehensively. She tested positive for a drug called Meldonium. She’ll get some kind of ban, and already her sponsors are walking away: Tag Heuer, Nike, Porsche. The game has changed. And her life.
We see sport in highly mythologised terms: and that means that sport often deals in absolutes. Good guys and bad guys. It’s a world in which you can be a hero for years and become a villain in seconds.
Sporting figures make their out-of-competition money by being ostentatiously virtuous. ‘Role model’ is the term: it means commercially exploitable. But let the facade of virtue slip and the world stops loving and demands instant revenge: Tiger Woods (sex), Lance Armstrong (drugs) and Hansie Cronje (match-fixing) all played the hypocrite role model with immense élan until they, too, were rumbled.
With so much at stake, you’d have thought Sharapova would be a bit more careful. She is notoriously the best-organised player on the circuit, and a very effective businesswoman in her own right – the Sugarpova confectionary line is her own business, she’s not just fronting it up for someone else. It’s worth a lot less than it was on Monday.
Meldonium only reached the banned list on 1 January. It’s a Latvian drug prescribed for heart conditions, but it had a long track record as a legal performance-enhancer. Sharapova’s teary explanation that she is more to be pitied than blamed will not convince everyone in the world.
In a way, it’s more shocking that this shrewd and effective human being should have allowed herself to get caught, than it is that she was using a banned drug. Did she think she was immune to the testers? Or was this the one moment in her life when she was a genuine dumb blonde?
Either way, she treads the weary road of beloved sports stars who have become cautionary tales. She did all right while the going was good and sometimes, when all thoughts of pouting were a million miles away, she had a grace and a beauty in movement that she could never attain when she was turning it on. The beauty of action. That’s the stuff that keeps bringing us back to sport despite the latest scandal du jour.