I thought Paris would be balmy, but it was still cold and damp, in fact it snowed, so I came home. In Brooklyn as in this strange zone where the federal capital is housed with all the trappings of Arab billionaire tyrants, spring is breaking out, so I unpacked the tennis gear I had not unpacked and headed back to my home courts. Let me tell you, there’s no place like home.
But alas, tennis has taken some serious hits lately. The year began with reports of match fixing even unto the Grand Slam events. I am keeping my powder dry and my fingers crossed on that one because I refuse to be drawn into the speculative rumor mongering that so much of our media indulge in instead of doing their job. Suffice it to say that the sport’s integrity unit found suspicious betting activity around certain matches and are following up. However, the umps who were found to be engaging in bets, regardless of whether or not they were officiating, got it in the neck.
Then, as I flew back to the safety of our blessed land, one of the sport’s best known figures, Maria Sharapova, was at a press conference in Los Angeles pleading guilty to a drug violation.
Meltdown for the Ice Queen? Not so fast. Miss Sharapova, reportedly one of the biggest earners on the women’s tour (tournament purses, exhibitions, endorsements, her own lines of this or that, mounting to a net worth over $100 million), announced that, indeed, she tested and was found positive in January for a substance called meldonium, which, she explained, she had been taking under medical prescription for the past 10 years. The anti-drugs inspectors at the international tennis authority said this item, manufactured behind the ex-Iron Curtain, was added to their list of banned substances only on January 1. Miss Sharapova had it in her system at the Australian Open a few weeks later. She said she should have known, but did not check a link attached to an email communication from the International Tennis Federation, which players are instructed to read carefully to keep up with what’s in and what’s out.
What is it every kid playing sandlot ball learns about the “didn’t know that rule” defense? Just so, and yet: I must admit to some sympathy for the immigrant from Siberia, now a resident of Bradenton, Florida.
Maria Sharapova has practiced the sport while battling many physical infirmities, including chronic shoulder injuries requiring surgery, apparent to even casual observers of her service, marked by aces and double faults. She is a tough competitor, often coming from behind. Tall and graceful, she has a tendency to shriek when hitting the ball, which some opponents find distracting and not quite fair.
Her health problems cannot excuse drug use, but it does render credible her defense that she has been taking this meldonium under direct medical orders. Obviously, there are those who will say, So what? And they are right, strictly speaking. The drug was banned this year – it already was banned in other sports – because apart from its medicinal value, it is one of those oxygen-enhancers that gives you the extra energy down the stretch. You think of cyclists, tennis aces, where after several hours an event may be decided by just a point of two or a few fractions of a second.
That, however, is why Kipling wrote of holding on when there is nothing in you except the will that says Hold on!
But what if you can’t breathe at all because you have a condition that inhibits your oxygen flow? What – you quit the sport at which you excel, earn a living, and inspire millions (aided by publicity-savvy sponsors, including Nike, which immediately terminated a multi-year multi-millions relationship with her)?
Dunno. I report, you decide. Serena Williams, the prima tra donne of our time, was quick to express support for one of her main rivals (beats her every time, though), underlining the “courage” of coming out forthrightly about this. Obviously, the problem here is that had she not been quality-controlled, would Miss S. have come out forthrightly? Would she have caught up with her email and reformed her ways?
Caroline Wozniacki, who was with Miss Williams at Madison Square Garden (close friends, they were going into an exhibition match to the delight of their fans), said, contrarian blond Danish beauty of Polish background, but I am saying this only out of fondness for my hierarchical superior, Mr. Wlady Pleszczynski, whose own favorite is Magda Linette, a Polish beauty of French ancestry. Miss W said you are required to check and double-check and triple-check every single thing you ingest!
When in doubt, I ask, “What would Bud say?” The saddest thing in tennis this year is the death of Bud Collins. The finest tennis reporter in the American language passed away quietly at home in Brookline. He was 86.
The best sports reporters are almost invariably historians of their sport, and on that score Bud Collins was without peer. His Tennis Encyclopedia (several editions) is a basic reference, as are his books on the Australian legends Rod Laver and Evonne Goolagong.
He was cheerful and kind even in when physically suffering, and stayed endlessly curious. He was popular with players because he called the game as he saw it, reported strengths and weaknesses honestly. He loved his job, and it showed.
So what would he say? I can only guess, but it is an informed guess, that the chips must fall. But he would add, as did another reporter-historian, Steve Tignor of Tennis magazine, that the stiffest penalty, which would effectively end the near-30ish champ’s career, should be ruled out, at least based on what we know now. Compassion must accompany the stern hand of justice.
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