Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer has cut ties with Maria Sharapova the latest sponsor after Nike and Porsche to distance itself from the world’s highest-paid female athlete following her failed drug test.
The swift response on Tuesday comes the heels of Sharapova’s announcement a day earlier, and signals a change in attitude among high-profile corporate backers following a series of doping and corruption scandals in world sports.
“We’re now entering a zero tolerance era for sponsors,” said Rupert Pratt, co-founder of sports sponsorship agency Generate.
“It is now seen as not acceptable to ‘stand by your man’ because of the amount of scrutiny corporates are now under.”
Sharapova’s failed drug test at January’s Australian Open, one of four annual Grand Slam events, will likely lead to a ban for the 28-year old Russian. The International Tennis Federation’s anti-doping program calls for a four-year suspension for a positive test.
Loss of sponsor income would be costly for Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam winner who earned $US29.7 million ($A39.74 million) last year, according to Forbes magazine, most of it from endorsements, appearances and royalties rather than victories on court.
Fellow athletes had mixed reactions to Sharapova’s announcement that she had tested positive for meldonium, a drug she said she had been taking for a decade to treat diabetes and low magnesium.
The substance, recently banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), boosts blood flow and can enhance athletic performance. Sharapova, who lives in the United States, is at least the seventh athlete in a month to test positive for meldonium.
“She’s ready to take full responsibility and I think that showed a lot of courage and a lot of heart,” Serena Williams, the top-ranked player in women’s tennis, told reporters at a briefing ahead of a game in New York on Tuesday.
Others were not so sympathetic.
“I’m extremely angry and disappointed. I had to lose my career and never opted to cheat no matter what,” tweeted former world No. 1 Jennifer Capriati, in a long series of posts attacking Sharapova.
Aries Merritt, a US hurdler, said there was no excuse for Sharapova to be unaware that WADA added meldonium to its latest list of banned drugs effective January 1, which it circulated to competitors.
Sharapova said she had not read an email informing her that meldonium was now banned for use in sport.
She will be provisionally suspended from playing tennis from March 12 and could be prevented from competing for Russia at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics this year.