Belinda Bencic opened the email she received in late December from the World Anti-Doping Agency, aware that it contained the annual updates of banned substances and eager to remain current on the subject. "We all got a new email," said the Swiss teenager, who is ranked No. 7 in the Women's Tennis Assn.'s rankings.
Maria Sharapova got the same email but didn't click on a crucial link to a list of substances that had been classified — or reclassified — as banned starting Jan. 1 of this year.
A few weeks later, Bencic and Sharapova met in the fourth round of the Australian Open. Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam champion and international endorsement darling, defeated Bencic, 7-5, 7-5. After a straight-sets loss to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals two days later, on Jan. 26, Sharapova tested positive for the drug meldonium. She had used it for 10 years, she said during a news conference this week, but she hadn't read that WADA email and didn't know the drug had been moved to the banned list because of its potential use as a performance-enhancing substance.
Sharapova was provisionally suspended pending an investigation by the International Tennis Federation, which could ban her up to four years. And it must ban her for at least a year or two in order to maintain credibility.
But that wouldn't make amends to Bencic or others who played Sharapova while the 28-year-old Russian was cheating, even if Sharapova did it unknowingly and for the general health reasons she cited and not to artificially boost her endurance.
Bencic, as self-possessed as she is talented, took the high road when asked about that match Wednesday at the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. "I don't want to comment on that. I lost a match and I don't think it made any difference," said Bencic, who is seeded seventh here.
But Bencic, like many players who attended a media roundtable event Wednesday, said she's diligent about checking the status of everything she ingests. "Even when you're a little bit sick and take drops against cough, I always check what is inside there and if it's not permitted," she said.
Some players said they trust a doctor or other member of their support team to keep up with what's allowed and what's not. It's understandable if Sharapova didn't do that herself — "It's not easy for us to understand all those weird names," said Gabine Muguruza — but someone who has Sharapova's interests at heart should have done that for her. "Every time I've got to take something, because it's very dangerous obviously and the line is very thin, I triple-check with my team to make sure I can take it," Muguruza said.
Agnieszka Radwanska said she heard about Sharapova's failed test while in the locker room preparing for this tournament, in which she's seeded third behind Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber. "A very sad day for tennis, that's for sure," said Radwanska, who is so wary of violating the drug policy that she's reluctant to take anything when she's ill. "I'm scared because I know every pill can have something in it," she said. "When I'm sick I'm just taking aspirin because I'm always afraid that there's going to be something else in it."
All of the players at Wednesday's session said they hadn't heard of meldonium, which is not approved for use in the United States, and all expressed surprise Sharapova had violated the sport's drug policy.
"It's a terrible thing for the world of sport in general, for our sport, especially. I think it's terrible news because the sport must be clean and must look clean," said 14-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, who is seeded fourth in this event. "The good news about all of this is we have a good anti-doping program."
He said he doesn't read the WADA emails but is confident his doctor, who's also the doctor for the Spanish tennis federation, will monitor those communications for him. Nadal also said he informs his doctor about everything he ingests.
But he seemed to give the benefit of the doubt to Sharapova, who accepted responsibility for not checking on the drug's new status.
"It's difficult to imagine that something like this can happen, but everybody can have mistakes," Nadal said. "I want to believe that for sure it's a mistake for Maria. She didn't want to do it. But it's obvious that there was negligence. The rules are like this. It's fair. Now she must pay for it."
Sadly, her opponents might have paid for it too.