How Sharapova could see the length of her ban reduced
Therapeutic use seen as 'mitigating factor'
A Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) could be the key to a dramatic reduction in Maria Sharapova's time out of the game, judging by an interview with her lawyer John J Haggerty.
While TUEs are normally sought before a banned medication is taken, there are grounds for a retrospective application, given that Sharapova claims to have been using meldonium for 10 years before Wada decided to ban it.
Asked whether he was considering such an application, Haggerty stopped short of the blank "I am not allowed to discuss that" which followed any other operational query. Instead, he said: "Maria and I are looking at all of her options" - a strong hint that this tactic could become part of her defence.
TUEs offer special dispensation to athletes with medical conditions and are a standard part of anti-doping procedure - even though UK Athletics recently called on Wada to stop granting so many. There have been plenty of controversial examples, including the TUE given to Floyd Mayweather last year for rehydration purposes. In Sharapova's case the important point is that tennis's anti-doping code will accept retrospective applications - if the International Tennis Federation and Wada both agree that "fairness requires" such a course.
A TUE application is only one of a range of options that Haggerty is looking at ahead of Sharapova's hearing, which will probably be towards the end of April. He was optimistic that he would be able to achieve a significant reduction in Sharapova's sentence from the theoretical maximum four-year ban.
"There is no evidence whatsoever that this was intentional on Maria's behalf," said Haggerty. "Therefore that immediately reduces it down to two years as a maximum. I believe that there are substantial mitigating factors that require a further reduction from two years down to significantly below that.
"Without a doubt mildronate aids in the treatment of cardiac symptoms and Maria was taking that because she was diagnosed by her doctor with abnormal EKG (electrocardiogram) results. She was also diagnosed as having diabetes indicators and again mildronate is a drug which aids in reducing diabetes indicators. Finally, mildronate provides cell protection, which is crucial in addressing low or weak immunity, which is another condition Maria was diagnosed with. The doctor's diagnosis and his treatment recommendations were consistent and medically necessary."
Haggerty also said that he was keen to "disabuse" suggestions that Sharapova's 10-year use of meldonium was inappropriate for a drug intended to be taken for short periods.
"A number of people picked this up," he explained, "and said, 'well, jeez, you're only supposed to take this for four to six weeks. Maria took it for 10 years. That doesn't add up.' But for those who didn't see the small print, he (Ivars Kalvins, the Latvian inventor of meldonium) said it was four to six weeks, two or three times a year. Or as recommended by your doctor.
"Maria had at all times taken mildronate in accordance with the recommendation of her doctor. And while I can't get into specifics, I do want to disabuse the fact that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years, because that's simply not the case. Maria's medical records, which will be presented to the ITF, make it clear that the medical treatment was recommended by her doctor. And the dosage Maria was taking was substantially less than any dosage that has been linked with the performance-enhancing attributes of mildronate."
Asked why the medical community had been so sceptical about the use of meldonium to treat Sharapova's symptoms, he replied: "There is a misunderstanding that Maria took mildronate and only mildronate and that was to address all of her medical conditions. She took mildronate and other medicines that were recommended by her doctor to address all of her conditions. It's possible that they [the sceptics] don't have all the facts, and so are a little bit in the blind."
Exactly how Haggerty intends to prove Sharapova's dosage levels is unclear. He declined to comment on whether she had mentioned meldonium when invited at each doping test to list any medication she might be using. He also declined to comment on where the doctor advising her was based.
Meldonium is not approved in the US and importation would be illegal. He did say: "It's an over-the-counter drug. It's readily available without need of a prescription. Not in the US but in many countries."
Finally, on the point of how Sharapova missed the change in meldonium's status - which took it on to the Wada banned list on Jan 1 - Haggerty said the problem was the disconnect between the brand name of mildronate and the name used by Wada - meldonium. "They [Sharapova's team] were aware of what Maria was taking. The misstep was the honest mistake of not checking the 2016 Wada banned-substance list and making the link between meldonium and mildronate."
The next stage will be a preliminary meeting, to be held within 21 days of the notification letter arriving in Sharapova's possession. At that point, the hearing will be scheduled, not less than 21 days later. (© Daily Telegraph, London)