Everyone, including London bookmakers and their wild and playful imaginations, was caught off guard by Maria Sharapova’s announcement Monday that she had tested positive for the banned substance meldonium.
Bookies are producing odds on Sharapova’s upcoming announcement: Retirement 4-11, pregnancy 9-2, first woman in space 250-1.
— Mike Dickson (@Mike_Dickson_DM) March 7, 2016
It’s certainly a serious matter and Sharapova will likely be sanctioned but she has been very forthright in admitting her guilt and declaring, “I made a huge mistake.”
Many tennis people had suspected a retirement announcement at the Los Angeles media conference and had begun to reflect on her career. One thing that immediately came to mind was that she has always been very professional. Despite losing 18 times in a row to Serena Williams over more than an 11-year period, she always then went to a media conference to face the music after those defeats – and conducted herself with as much thoughtfulness as could be expected under the circumstances.
Last year at the Australian Open when she lost in the final, once again to Williams, Sharapova was in tears in the players restaurant. She’s what hockey players call a “rink rat” or basketball players call a “gym rat.” She loves the game in all its facets – from the pristine lawns of the All England Club to smelly workout rooms or grimy practice courts.
The fact that she took the drug legally for 10 years before it was placed on WADA’s banned substances list at the beginning of 2016 should be considered a mitigating factor, along with her 15-year impeccable record since turning pro in April, 2001.
The big question now for Sharapova, who says, “I really hope that I will be given another chance to play this game,” is the length of time she will be banned from tennis.
It’s highly unlikely it would be for more than a year in view of her exemplary record on tour. The big question is how long any suspension might be from her ‘provisional suspension’ beginning on March 12.
Anything six months or longer could have a devastating effect because six months from March 12 would take her to exactly one day after the 2016 US Open finishes.
At age 28 – turning 29 on the 19th of April – that would mean she won’t play the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open again until 2017 when she has her 30th birthday 13 months from now.
Together with Serena Williams, Sharapova, who has played just two tournaments (plus two Fed Cup matches) since last September because of a left forearm injury is probably the greatest marquee attraction in women’s tennis.
In some ways it’s a shocker that she has been caught and will likely be sanctioned because there were always whispers that tennis authorities would never take down the game’s greatest stars because it would be too harmful to the tours and to the overall image of the sport.
So… compared to the suggestion at the top here, the odds on a Sharapova retirement have now lengthened – unless she receives a ban so severe it would be unlikely she could ever return.
To her credit, despite all the emotion and humiliation of her announcement, she was able make light about the misconceptions about her retirement. “I know many of you thought that I was retiring today and announcing my retirement,” she said Monday with wry humour. “But if I was ever going to announce my retirement, it would probably not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this ugly carpet.”
Bouchard in tough struggle
A year ago it was mostly one step forward and two steps back for Genie Bouchard. So far in 2016, it’s the opposite – two steps forward and one step back.
Bouchard fought hard for two hours and 53 minutes – in a match interrupted four times by rain – before losing the Malaysian Open final on Sunday by a 6-7(5), 6-4, 7-5 score to Elina Svitolina.
It was a topsy-turvy encounter with Bouchard leading by a set and 4-2 against an obviously frustrated Svitolina – and then serving for the title at 5-4 in the final set.
The match didn’t turn on very much – maybe a break point for Bouchard at 5-all in the final set when she made a volley and an overhead that she could have done more with before finally muffing a forehand volley into the net and throwing her racquet down in disgust.
Overall, as the Brits say, “there was very little in it” and Bouchard could easily have come out a winner.
Watching the match, it’s pretty obvious the 22-year-old Bouchard – seven months older than the woman she beat in the 2012 Wimbledon junior girls final – has a higher ceiling in terms of improvement than Svitolina. She was the one directing most of the rallies and, when playing her best attacking game, she should prevail despite the Ukrainian’s excellent defensive abilities. And that even though Svitolina leads their head-to-head 4-0 – although every match was competitive.
A further mitigating factor in Sunday’s contest was the fact that Bouchard was treated for “concussion-like symptoms” at the end of the second set. She had her pulse and her blood-pressure taken, and her neck manipulated, and insisted on playing on despite the fact that some advice suggested she should stop.
Her runner-up finish has moved her ranking up 10 spots from No. 52 to No. 42 (Svitolina went from No. 19 to a career-high No. 14) and she now moves on to Indian Wells and a real challenge to get over whatever physical and psychological ails she has from Malayasia, as well as the jetlag which could affect a quick turn-around main-draw, first match on either Wednesday or Thursday.
In a sense the BNP Paribas Open was the scene of the crime in 2015 – after decisive wins over Lucie Hradecka and Coco Vandeweghe, Bouchard lost a nighttime roller-coaster 6-7(5), 7-5, 6-4 match to No. 85 Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine and began a downward spiral that she didn’t really snap out of until her third round win at the US Open over Dominica Cibulkova.
She has 120 ranking points to defend in Indian Wells but she shouldn’t obsess over those. If she does poorly in the California desert, she can move onto Miami (her ‘official residence’) and the Miami Open in two weeks. She has just 10 points to defend from an opening-round loss there a year ago, and that’s at the beginning of a stretch where almost every result will be a bonus as a result of her lack of success through the spring and summer of 2015.
Davis Cup mission impossible
On the slim-to-none chances meter – Canada’s hopes last weekend in the Davis Cup World Group opening round in Guadeloupe against France nudged perilously close to ‘none.’
By virtue of being the host country, the French had everything in their favour – the surface (clay), the environment (hot and humid) and the crowd (partisan but fair) – as well as a line-up made up of four, experienced top-20 players in Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet, Gael Monfils and Gilles Simon.
Once it was learned that world No. 13 and Canadian team leader Milos Raonic could not play because of his adductor injury, and that doubles mainstay Daniel Nestor would be missing due to a family matter, there was something – to use a $100 word – Sisyphean about the whole undertaking.
The Canadians – Vasek Pospisil, Frank Dancevic and Philip Bester – deserve boatloads of credit for their commitment and efforts. All three faced enormous odds and conducted themselves like genuine pros.
The task now is to defend Canada’s five-year stint in the World Group by winning a World Group Playoff the weekend of September 16-18, five days after the US Open finishes. A draw the week after Davis Cup zonal ties from July 15-17 will reveal which country Canada plays and whether the tie will be home or away.
Looking ahead to that crucial moment, captain Martin Laurendeau said, “there’s so much tennis to be played – three Grand Slams, the whole clay-court season, the hard-court season, Masters Series and Olympic Games – so September is very far from now. They (Canada’s players) will have a lot of tennis under their belt by then. You just hope that they’re healthy. That’s the key for us we don’t have the depth that the French team has. So our few guys that can play at this level, we need them healthy because what’s coming around the corner for them is very physical.”
The possibility of being relegated to Americas Group I in 2017 is not a pleasant one. “Going back to Group One is very difficult, it’s very difficult to get out of that zone,” Laurendeau said. “There are a lot of good teams waiting for an opportunity. So, I think the guys will be eyeing the next Davis Cup with pride. They’re champions. They want to remain in the World Group. It’s a privilege and an honour but we need to earn it and defend it. So that’s what we’ve got to do.”
BNP Paribas Open – Indian Wells
It’s the first ATP Masters 1000 and WTA Premier Mandatory event of 2016, and it has become arguably the most popular non-Grand Slam event on the yearly calendar.
Tournament owner and Oracle CEO, billionaire Larry Ellison, has opened up his cheque book and the tournament boasts remarkable recent stadium expansions and amenities such as Hawk-Eye on every match court.
This year’s edition will be missing headliners Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova but will see the return of Venus Williams, following in her younger sister’s footsteps from a year ago.
For the Canadians, Milos Raonic gets back into action for the first time since his Australian Open semi-final in January and will be defending 360 ranking points after upsetting Rafael Nadal in last year’s quarter-finals before losing to Federer in the semis.
As mentioned earlier, Bouchard, unseeded, will be defending 120 points from her round-of-16 performance a year ago.
Vasek Pospisil is in both the singles and doubles where he and Jack Sock will be defending the 1000 points they earned a year ago as champions.
Coverage in Canada begins on Thursday at 11:30 p.m. (EST) on TSN2 and continues Friday at 11:30 p.m. on TSN4 and TSN5. Check TSN.ca/tennis for additional coverage.
NOTE: Tebbutt Tuesday will be in Indian Wells this week and next doing periodic blogs mainly about the Canadian players.