Tuesday 18 June 2019

Maria Sharapova can be optimistic of reduction in doping ban

Appeal: Maria Sharapova. Photo: Daniel Munoz/Reuters
Appeal: Maria Sharapova. Photo: Daniel Munoz/Reuters

Simon Briggs

Maria Sharapova and her legal team can be confident of celebrating a reduction in her doping ban on Tuesday, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport delivers its verdict on her appeal.

Sharapova tested positive for meldonium in January, then received a two-year sentence in June, after a tribunal convened by the International Tennis Federation ruled that “She is the sole author of her own misfortune.”

Yet the debate around meldonium - a popular medication in Russia - has been muddied by arguments over how long it takes to leave the body, and whether athletes received enough warning ahead of its addition to the banned list in January.

Then there is the “tall poppy” angle. When submitting her appeal to CAS in June, Sharapova’s lawyer John Haggerty suggested that she had received an “unfairly harsh suspension because she is such a famous athlete and they wanted to make an example out of her".

CAS has a record of reducing sentences imposed by ITF panels, having already cut bans handed out to Marin Cilic (to four months from the original nine) and Viktor Troicki (from 18 months to 12).

In Sharapova’s case, much of the tennis world believes that her ban will be halved to one year, which would take us up to January 26, 2017 and enable her to return after the Australian Open.

Hardliners will no doubt continue to argue that one year is insufficient. This is the WADA-recommended sentence for cases where the athlete bears “no significant fault”, and such an argument can hardly apply in Sharapova’s case after her agent Max Eisenbud admitted in front of the ITF tribunal that he had failed to review the 2016 Prohibited List.

But then her other lawyer, the experienced doping specialist Howard Jacobs, is sure to have pointed out the discrepancy between Sharapova’s two-year ban and the many athletes who tested positive for meldonium and received no punishment at all.

He is also likely to have made capital out of the clumsy remark from WADA president Craig Reedie, who said in June that he had taken pleasure from Sharapova’s conviction because “she earns more money in one year than WADA’s entire budget”.

Reedie could hardly have done more to substantiate the theory levelled by Haggerty after the original ITF judgement, which suggested that Sharapova had been the victim of a big-game hunt as much as a witch-hunt. At 2pm today, we will discover how much the ITF case has been weakened by such details.


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