Maria Sharapova's compatriots have stood by her side for a reason

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Maria Sharapova served a 15-month suspension after testing positive for meldonium. (AP)

NEW YORK—It was hardly anything new when Caroline Wozniacki criticized Maria Sharapova's standing in the first week of the US Open. 

"A schedule where the No. 5 [seed] is playing on Court 5, fifth match on ... I think that's unacceptable," said Wozniacki, who was eventually moved to larger Court 17 and fell to Ekaterina Makarova on a packed third day at Flushing Meadows.

Sharapova, who received a wild card into the tournament and is ranked No. 103—she was No. 146 during the US Open—as she continues her return from an anti-doping suspension, was scheduled to play third on Arthur Ashe Stadium.

"I understand completely the business side of things,” Wozniacki said in a Danish television interview. “But someone who comes back from a drugs sentence, performance-enhancing drugs, and all of a sudden gets to play every single match on center court, I think that's a questionable thing to do.”

While Wozniacki has previously said she is not against players getting a "second chance," she has also argued that the rules have been bent to get one of the world's most famous athletes back on court as smoothly as possible.

Plenty of players have gone further. Kristina Mladenovic and Eugenie Bouchard have both accused Sharapova of “cheating,” saying their opinions are widely shared in the locker room.

Andy Murray also chimed in.

"I think taking a prescription drug that you don’t necessarily need, but just because it’s legal, I don’t think that that’s right,” the world No. 3 said.

Several others have criticized wild cards given to Sharapova upon her return, with the French Open refusing to give one to the five-time Grand Slam champion.

The back story should be familiar by now. Following the 2016 Australian Open, Sharapova announced that she had tested positive for meldonium—which, apparently unknown to her, had been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) since the beginning of the new season. Sharapova said she had taken meldonium for many years, initially on the recommendation of a doctor because she was having irregular electrocardiograms, magnesium deficiency and had a family history of diabetes.

It then emerged that hundreds of other athletes, mostly from Eastern Europe, had also tested positive for the substance. But most of those athletes—though not Sharapova—had low concentrations that indicated they had taken it in 2015, when it was still allowed. The incident publicly revealed the extent of meldonium's use in sports, which, according to USA Today, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) was informed of in 2014. That eventually led to WADA's monitoring of the substance in 2015, and its ban in 2016. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine indicated that 8.7 percent of athletes at the 2015 European Games in Baku tested positive for meldonium.

Sharapova's case even divided those that decided her suspension. The International Tennis Federation’s independent tribunal was critical of her behavior and announced an 18-month suspension, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), to which Sharapova appealed, did not have the same reaction. It said she should not be considered an "intentional doper”—based on WADA rules that indicate whether the athlete knew they were breaking the rules—and gave her a reduced suspension of 15 months.

But despite the furor that has surrounded Sharapova during this period, one group has remained largely silent: Russian players. Their perception of the whole incident seems to be very different, and they have a simple explanation for it.

"It's because we know exactly what is meldonium," said Svetlana Kuznetsova in Toronto.

While little-known and mysterious sounding in the West, the Latvian-invented product is readily found in Eastern European pharmacies and doesn't require a prescription. According to Russian players, meldonium is seen largely as a “protective” drug, commonly used by older people for heart problems.

"I mean, first of all, we read everything [about] what happened," Elena Vesnina, sitting alongside Ekaterina Makarova, her doubles partner, told TENNIS.com. "We know in Russia what kind of thing is that. For us, it was very strange because, first of all, when they kind of forbid it, they caught her in January, and in December it [went] on the list. 

"It was just a mistake from her. It doesn't mean she was taking it on purpose to help her succeed or something. And this drug, it's nothing serious. It's old people taking it back in Russia and Soviet Union countries. It’s to help your heart to feel better in old age. It was very strange that a lot of players were so much against her, like she's a bad person. It's not like that.

"All the Russians knew what has happened, and that's why we're behind Maria. And we didn't want to put this kind of things on the press like other players did."

Asked if they had heard of the substance previously, Makarova said, "We wasn't taking this."

"We spoke with the doctors and with many, many specialists,” Vesnina said. “We asked. We were interested. What is that? And everyone was shocked because they said, ‘We don't know why it was on the list, because there was no reason.’ And the thing is, WADA, they didn't even do their research about [the length of time] it stays in the body. So it's too many questions." 

"A lot of sportsmen from other sports were taking it," said Makarova.

"Football players, track and field, volleyball players, a lot of players were taking this thing," added Vesnina. "But it's kind of a course of rehabilitation, when you recover from a lot of hard work. For many years, it was not on the list, and all of a sudden..." 

"Before the Olympics," said Makarova.

"Yeah, yeah, before the Olympics they put it on the list," said Vesnina. "So it's kind of … yeah."

This implication—that the ban was aimed at hampering Russian athletes—is reinforced by their view that there is no performance-enhancing benefit from meldonium. 

"No, no, for sure," said Makarova.

"No, no," said Vesnina. "You can try it. You're not going to win the Grand Slam."

"We're not critical of [Sharapova] at all," said Daria Kasatkina. "For me it's a bit ridiculous. Because this thing what she was using, in Russia almost every child use this. Because it's not even doping. It’s just vitamins. That's why Russians are not doing bad things to her or talking bad about her, because it's just mistake—[though] I don't know who made this mistake."

That explanation may be a little too simple. The analogy was used by some Russians to describe the ubiquity of meldonium, rather than its function. According to studies of the drug, it reduces the body's supply of L-carnitine, shifting energy production from fatty acids to blood sugars. The more efficient process would presumably reduce demand on the heart, and also increase the absorption of blood sugars while reducing damage to muscle and other tissues.

While meldonium's effects haven't been extensively tested, it does point to uses for heart problems, depletion and diabetes—exactly what Sharapova cited. But it could also have performance-enhancing benefits like increased stamina and a quicker recovery. Sharapova's use of the tablets appears to have been tied to competition, with the ITF ruling noting that she had been instructed to take more before big matches. (Oddly, L-carnitine supplements, which induce the opposite effect, have been promoted as performance-enhancers for endurance athletes. They are banned by WADA in some circumstances, but allowed in others.)

Some of the player reaction to Sharapova is undoubtedly shaped by the perception of her sometimes distant attitude to her fellow professionals. But it also seems to be shaped by the perception of meldonium, which is very different among Eastern Europeans and those from other parts of the world. 

Which is more accurate? That might be for Sharapova to answer.


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