LOS ANGELES -- Nothing is ever the same in a sport after one of its biggest superstars fails a doping test. It's easy to write off lower-level busts as the fruit of envy, desperation and the climb to the top. Doubt cast on a champion makes competitors and fans alike challenge their own loyalties and assumptions.
For many years, tennis' feeble anti-doping program and self-serving assertions that it was above such base behavior helped fuel unproven rumors of secret suspensions and positive tests swept under the rug. As evidence mounted that doping crosses all sporting, national and socio-economic boundaries, tennis remained free of major drug scandals, catching only the smallest baitfish in its flawed net.
But Maria Sharapova is on a different level. The Russian is one of 10 women to have won all four Grand Slam events. She has been the highest-earning female athlete in the world for 11 straight years, according to the list kept by Forbes. Deplored for grunting, admired for pugilism, she stoically contests every point, even when a match looks lost.
It was characteristic of that persona that a cornered Sharapova would charge the ball instead of waiting at the baseline. She broke her own news rather than silently sidelining herself while the arbitration process plays out. She took responsibility for ignoring the latest revisions to the World Anti-Doping Agency's prohibited list, part of a set of rules that exists ostensibly to protect the rights and interests of athletes like her.
Her admission almost certainly rules out any chance that she'll be let off the hook. The standard of strict liability remains a core concept of the WADA code. Failure to read the fine print is essentially a breach of contract. Of course, Sharapova is wealthy and smart enough to pay a posse of people to read those regulations for her. It's almost inconceivable that no one in her entourage backed her up on the play. But she blamed no one else.
Sharapova is the seventh known athlete to test positive for Meldonium (also known as Mildronate) in the scant 10 weeks since it was added to the list of prohibited substances. The drug, developed in Latvia for use in patients with various cardiac ailments, is not approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration.
Research has shown that the drug's metabolism-boosting mechanism can improve endurance and aerobic capacity. The decision to ban it came after a year of monitoring by WADA, which found it cropping up in too many lab samples for comfort, as well as anecdotal and self-reported use by athletes. The recent positives have come in a variety of sports -- figure skating, cycling, biathlon, running and now tennis -- but most of the athletes who have been caught are from Russia and Eastern Europe.
There will be a time and place for Sharapova to present medical records to back her assertion that she took the drug for a decade solely for legitimate therapeutic purposes. Until and unless that explanation is forthcoming and convincing, other factors are fair game in evaluating her case.
The history of modern doping is replete with examples of drugs whose original, altruistic purpose has been twisted by athletes, coaches and sports-science gurus seeking an edge. Recovery and maintenance of form, not swift and spectacular physiological changes, are the goal of most illicit performance-enhancing regimes these days. We have all seen overly convenient diagnoses of asthma and thyroid malfunction and attention deficit disorder used as justifications.
And there's this: Sharapova may be a longtime resident of the United States, but she competes for a country whose sports-science infrastructure is completely compromised.
Tennis has been absurdly portrayed by some advocates as a sport in which endurance-enhancing drugs would not help. This despite the visible evidence that it is more physical and punishing than ever before, both on the court and between tournaments over a season that lasts 10 months and requires continual inter-continental travel.
It has always defied belief that one population of elite athletes would be significantly more ethical and less prone to cheating than another. Tennis skated under the radar for a long time, benefiting from its genteel roots and etiquette and true-believer following, even as prize money and endorsement income potential soared, and with them, the temptation to cheat.
None of this means Maria Sharapova is guilty of anything other than following a doctor's orders or being careless about reading WADA emails. Some will be quick to convict her based on our common and increasingly cynical frame of reference. Some will hurry to give her the benefit of the doubt. Neither of those conclusions is warranted yet. What is sure is that tennis is about to be tested in a greater sense.