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Tennis company Head defends Maria Sharapova's integrity through drug test controversy

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Not all of Maria Sharapova's sponsors are jumping ship.

As some of the tennis star's biggest corporate backers abruptly cut ties with her this week over a failed drug test, Austrian racket brand Head said Thursday that it plans to extend her endorsement contract, calling her drug use an "honest mistake."Sharapova announced Monday that a drug test at the Australian Open in January had turned up a substance called meldonium, which she says she has taken since 2006 for personal health reasons. She claims she didn't realize that it had been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned substance list that same month.

Head CEO Johan Eliasch said Sharapova made "a manifest error" in using the drug after it had been added to the banned list and that there was no "evidence of any intent by Maria of enhancing her performance or trying to gain an unfair advantage."


The company said it was "proud to stand by Maria now and into the future."


Head's reaction is a big contrast to those of Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche, all of which suspended years-long business relationships with her less than 24 hours after the announcement, pending results of an investigation.  

Sharapova, who is regularly named the world's highest paid female athlete, is considered one of the most marketable stars in sports.

While she has never reached quite the same mainstream name recognition as rival Serena Williams — according to market research firm Q Scores — she is particularly popular among the older, higher-income crowd that makes up a disproportionate bulk of the sport's viewership.

But sports marketing experts say that in recent years, major brands have been much quicker to drop even the biggest star athletes at the faintest scent of controversy. 

These companies fear that a public perception that they are dragging their feet over the decision reflects poorly on their own brands — especially in a fast-paced media environment saturated with snappy headlines and social media outrage. 

But Eliasch told the Associated Press that he admired Sharapova's honest and forthright handling of the situation and that their years of business dealings together have earned her a measure of trust in the company's eyes.  

"The honesty and courage she displayed in announcing and acknowledging her mistake was admirable," Eliasch said. "Maria may have made a mistake, but she has earned the benefit of the doubt and we are extending it to her."

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