MOSCOW—Maria Sharapova, the world’s highest-earning female athlete for many years, was abandoned Tuesday by some of her biggest sponsors after the Russian tennis star acknowledged taking a recently banned substance for a decade.
Sportswear giant Nike, Swiss watch brand Tag Heuer and German luxury car company Porsche quickly distanced themselves from the five-time Grand Slam winner, who announced on Monday that she tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open in January, days after the drug was banned.
The former world No. 1 took full responsibility for her mistake and could face a lengthy ban from the International Tennis Federation, possibly ending her season and preventing her from competing for Russia at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I know that with this, I face consequences,” Sharapova, 28, said Monday. “I don’t want to end my career this way, and I really hope I will be given another chance to play this game.”
“We are saddened and surprised by the news about Maria Sharapova,” Nike responded in a statement. “We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues. We will continue to monitor the situation.”
TAG Heuer, which had been discussing a new deal with Sharapova after its sponsorship expired at the end of 2015, said it has decided not to renew the contract “in view of the current situation.”
Porsche said it has “chosen to postpone planned activities” with Sharapova “until further details are released and we can analyze the situation.” Water company Evian said it “will follow closely the development of the investigation.”
Even veterans of sports advertising were surprised Tuesday by how quickly these and other sponsors sought to distance themselves from such a bankable performer.
For the last 11 years, Sharapova has led the Forbes Magazine list of highest-paid female athletes, earning an estimated $29.5 million last year alone.
“She’s a one-woman marketing machine,” said Nigel Currie, an independent British-based sponsorship consultant. “There are lots of male stars in the world, but not many female stars.”
Currie said it’s “unbelievable” how such a mistake could have happened since Sharapova has such a big support network. It’s also “amazing” how quickly sponsors react, he said.
“They are paranoid about their image, and the slightest risk to their image, they run to the hills.”
The World Anti-Doping Agency banned meldonium starting this year because it aids oxygen uptake and endurance. All players were notified by email of the changes in the WADA banned substances list in December.
Sharapova, who said she has taken meldonium for 10 years for numerous health issues, claimed she neglected to click on a link to the new list and simply missed the change. Several other athletes across international sports also have been caught using it since then.
“I take great responsibility and professionalism in my job, and I made a huge mistake,” Sharapova said. “I let my fans down. I let the sport down that I’ve been playing since the age of 4, that I love so deeply.”
Born in Siberia, Sharapova was just 5 when she was discovered by Martina Navratilova. She and her father had just $700 on hand when they moved to Florida to train her for tennis stardom. The lanky blonde won Wimbledon, her first Grand Slam title, at 17, and the endorsements came rolling in.
Sharapova now has 35 career singles titles and more than $36 million in career prize winnings. But her endorsement deals and extensive business ventures, including a high-profile candy line, Sugarpova, dwarf what she earns on the court.