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How do you absolve a problem like Maria?

The way this looks and walks and quacks, it is beginning to appear very much like a duck.

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Serena Williams: Sharapova has 'heart'

Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Serena Williams says Maria Sharapova has shown courage and heart in her handling of her failed drug test at the Australian Open.

Maria Sharapova says she started to take meldonium 10 years ago on the advice of her family doctor to treat of a range of medical complaints, including a heart irregularity, a magnesium deficiency and a family history of diabetes. Maybe that's fair enough. One of the lesser indications for Mildronate, as she knew the drug, is for "decreased performance, physical stress, including in athletes".

But she continued to use it for a decade, knowing it was not approved for sale in the US and had to be sourced from its maker in Latvia, which, at the very least, must have made her wonder if she was onto something that no one else was. She said it made her "healthy". Evidently, her decrease in performance eased; she won four more major championships to add to her maiden triumph at Wimbledon in 2004.

Leading US heart surgeon Dr Steven Nissen said: "There is no way it would be clinically indicated in a healthy young athlete." Melbourne cardiologist Dr Ross Walker, speaking to Neil Mitchell, concurred wholeheartedly. "It all sounds extremely dodgy to me," he said.

Sharapova's lawyer John Haggerty said: "She acknowledged she took the drug called Mildronate and that, under a different name, meldonium, it is on the banned list." On the banned list, they are right next to one another, Mildronate in brackets.


Meldonium was provisionally on the list last year, flagged for monitoring, and incorporated onto the list proper this year, banned "because of evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance". In a nutshell, it was identified as one of the steps by which the baddies are said always to be ahead of the goodies.

Sharapova says she did not read the list this year, nor, presumably, last year. Nor did any of her many minders. Nor did she or they listen to the annual briefing before the Australian Open. This from a player who is so careful, thorough and precise in her tennis routines that she will not walk on the lines on court between points. Quack, quack.

Sharapova has lived in the US since she was seven, but competes as a Russian. Her medicine came from Latvia, which falls within Russia's orbit.

Of the five other athletes who so far have tested positive to meldonium, four are Russian or Ukranian. In November, the World Anti-Doping Agency brought down an explosive report on athletics in Russia, accusing it of industrial-scale doping sanctioned at the highest level of government.

Yes, life can be pretty hectic on the various red carpets and while shooting the commercials, and too many Sugarpovas probably have a bit of a red cordial effect, but you may think an alarm bell might have rung about then. Waddle, waddle, waddle.

On Monday, Sharapova leapt onto the front foot, announcing the violation before any authority could and forgoing testing of the B sample. It was good PR. Indicted athletes usually say they did not take the drug or that they took it unwittingly. Sharapova is claiming neither. Rather, she is saying she was a bit behind in her homework.

Under the revamped code, remission is available for those who unintentionally take a banned substance, but this applies explicitly to banned substances found in contaminated product. Sharapova is pleading, perhaps unprecedentedly, that she intentionally took a substance she did not realise was banned.

Under the principle of strict liability, lost on no one in this country after the Essendon saga, it is a flimsy defence. Said Richard Ings, former head of the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority: "She has a tough sell to reduce the ban. It is very careless."

It is hard not to conclude that here is one dead duck.