I remember the day I decided to walk away from competitive tennis. It was during my senior year of high school when, after a summer of anticipation, I didn’t get the coveted singles spot I was hoping for. At 5-foot-4 with a smallish frame, I’ve never been a power player. Worse, I had no net game—the saving grace of the small but agile. Coming of age when tennis was being redefined by the Williams sisters, I knew that even with good coaching and a lot of effort, I only had limited potential. I didn’t fight it. My last high school match was my last competitive match to date, a decision I’ve occasionally regretted but never reconsidered.
Throughout that time, the game has continued to get more competitive. Which is why, when news of Maria Sharapova’s doping suspension came to light earlier this week, I wasn’t surprised. For many who have been following the sport for the past decade, it seemed like only a matter of time before women’s tennis would have to contend with a serious doping scandal.
The stage was set last summer when New York Times contributor Ben Rothenberg wrote a piece about the changing physicality of female tennis players. Focusing on how players strive to retain a sense of femininity in the face of the sport’s increasingly challenging physical demands, the piece was tone deaf in its angle, but it offered some interesting insights into how the sport was evolving.
Quoted in the story was tennis analyst and former champion Pam Shriver, who emphasized the importance of strength in a power-driven game. “That is really an important acceptance for some female athletes, that their best body type, their best performance build, is one that is not thin; it’s one of power.” The conversation sparked by Rothenberg’s article centered around the shifting dynamics of the sport itself, and of the fact that its players were struggling to navigate those changes through their training and endurance.
Viewed in the light of this ongoing discussion, the news of Sharapova’s doping doesn’t seem particularly surprising. Rather, it seems like a catalyst for a more honest conversation about the state of women’s tennis. At a time when doping has become extremely common in professional sports dominated by men, the level of shock with which this news was met seems to misunderstand a fundamental truth about female athletes—that they are subject to the same pressures as men.
While I don’t doubt that Sharapova’s story will continue to elicit some level of outrage, my reaction has been much more sympathetic. For athletes who are struggling to balance an increasingly difficult sport with the demands of their endorsement deals, the strain (like the fallout) is enormous. Instead of ostracizing Sharapova, I hope we’re able to use this moment to acknowledge that the sport has changed, and to stop insisting that female players are somehow immune to its pressures.
Featured image: Maria Sharapova at Italian Open, Rome, Italy, 13 May 2014. By Valentina Alemanno (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons