There is now more evidence of the ruthless skill with which Maria Sharapova’s press advisers staged her announcement that she had failed a drugs test.
Their aim was clear from the start; deliver a stage-managed performance of contrition and apology that would gain sympathy from the public and make it easy for her fellow professionals to support her – as many did, using words such as “courage,” “integrity” and “class.”
As an added bonus, a video of her performance could be put on her website which would help reinforce her message.
They reasoned that a sympathetic narrative would help their negotiations with the tennis authorities
So there were considerable gains to be made from staging this event.
But there was one real danger. The carefully constructed edifice might come tumbling down if well-informed journalists started asking her searching questions about mildronate/meldonium at the press conference.
The tactics to ensure this did not happen were very clever. First there were rumours that she was announcing her retirement – so media outlets would send a tennis specialist rather than an expert on drugs in sport.
Secondly the announcement had to be made as quickly as possible to ensure that no rumours dribbled out about failed drug tests and particularly her use of meldonium. Had this happened, well-briefed specialist journalists would have challenged her more effectively and aggressively than those at the event, whose questions were so banal they could remain on the video used on her website.
The importance of protecting Sharapova from cross-examination became clear within hours. By then questions were being asked about a range of issues including the number of times she had been warned; whether she was justified in using the drug for 10 years; who else had been using the drug; whether she was still using the drug for medical purposes; and why she was using a drug that had not been approved for use in the USA.
By then of course there was no Sharapova to provide answers. She might have been able to do so but it was a risk her handlers simply could not afford to take.
And I suspect the commitment to “openness and honesty” she made in her statement will not extend to another press conference with a better-prepared media.
Indeed it looks as if her strategy will now revert to a hard-nosed lawyer-driven approach where she will use every trick to minimise the consequences of her actions.
Her lawyer, John J Haggerty, has already refused to say where she acquired the meldonium, describing it as “an over-the-counter drug” which could be bought in many countries.
“I do want to disabuse the fact that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that’s simply not the case,” he said. “The dosage Maria was taking was substantially less than any dosage that has been linked with the performance-enhancing attributes of mildronate.” Haggerty said Sharapova’s medical records would be shared with the International Tennis Federation and would “make it clear that the medical treatment was necessary and recommended by her doctor”.
He insisted there was “no evidence whatsoever” she intended to cheat, which would rule out a four-year ban; and he argue there were “substantial mitigating factors” justified a ban of “significantly below” the next entry point of two years.
I have no idea how strong her case is: but I am now more certain that we should watch very carefully to see how she tries to balance a soft image and tough negotiation.