Monday 17 June 2019

Maria Sharapova 'counting the days' until her return to tennis after reduction of doping ban

Russia’s Maria Sharapova took the banned drug meldonium. Photo: Reuters
Russia’s Maria Sharapova took the banned drug meldonium. Photo: Reuters

Matt Slater

Maria Sharapova has told fans she is "counting the days" until she returns to tennis in April after the Court of Arbitration for Sport reduced her two-year doping ban to just 15 months.

The 29-year-old Russian tested positive for the heart-boosting drug meldonium at the Australian Open in January and was given the two-year sanction by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) in June.

But CAS, sport's highest court, sliced nine months off that ban in what her lawyer John Haggerty described as a "stunning repudiation of the ITF" and a "wake-up call" for the game's governing body.

In a statement posted her social media accounts, Sharapova said: "I've gone from one of the toughest days of my career last March when I learned about my (provisional) suspension to now, one of my happiest days, as I found out I can return to tennis in April.

"Tennis is my passion and I have missed it. I am counting the days until I can return to the court.

"I have taken responsibility from the very beginning for not knowing that the over-the-counter supplement I had been taking for the last 10 years was no longer allowed.

"But I also learned how much better other federations were at notifying their athletes of the rule change, especially in eastern Europe where Mildronate (its trade name) is commonly taken by millions of people.

"Now that this process is over, I hope the ITF and other relevant tennis anti-doping authorities will study what these other federations did, so that no other tennis player will have to go through what I went through."

The world's highest-earning female athlete finished the statement with a "thank you" for the "SharaFamily" of fans who have backed her since she first revealed her positives at a press conference in March.

The result is undoubtedly a victory for Sharapova and her legal team but it is also a defeat for the ITF, in particular, and the World Anti-Doping Agency.

As both Haggerty and Sharapova pointed out, the three-man panel of CAS experts said it did "not agree with many of the conclusions of the (ITF) tribunal" that punished the five-time grand slam winner with a scathing report four months ago.

The ITF has already seen CAS reduce bans for Marin Cilic and Viktor Troicki and now it will have the panel's criticism of its failure to properly inform players of changes to WADA's banned list ringing in its ears.

Sharapova's lawyers had asked CAS to reinstate her immediately but deep down they will know the nine-month reduction is the most they could have expected as her case did not meet all the criteria for a "no significant fault" reduction of 50 percent.

CAS said in a statement: "The panel found that Ms Sharapova committed an anti-doping rule violation and that while it was with 'no significant fault', she bore some degree of fault, for which a sanction of 15 months is appropriate.

"The panel wishes to point out that the case it heard, and the award it has rendered, was only about the degree of fault that can be imputed to the player for her failure to make sure that the substance contained in a product that she had been taking over a long period remained in compliance with the anti-doping rules.

"Under no circumstances, therefore, can the player be considered to be an 'intentional doper'."

Sharapova's hopes of complete vindication were holed from the moment her agent Max Eisenbud admitted he and Sharapova failed to check WADA's banned list.

Meldonium was added to the banned list on January 1, having been on WADA's monitoring list for all of 2015, and athletes and their entourages were warned several times by email that it was about to be prohibited.

But since its ban the whole debate about meldonium has been descended into farce as it became apparent WADA did not know how quickly the drug is excreted from the body, meaning athletes who stopped taking it before January could still have tested positive months later.

That has led to WADA twice putting back the date from which positive samples can be prosecuted, causing considerable embarrassment for the agency and anger in eastern Europe, where the drug is widely used.

Sharapova's case, however, was different, as she had already admitted to taking the drug several times at the Australian Open.

That honesty initially looked like it might cost her, as she would probably have avoided a ban if she had said nothing about when she took the drug, but this ruling has rewarded her for coming clean on the dates.

There was a hint of censure from the panel for Sharapova in that she did not mention her use of meldonium and two other over-the-counter heart treatments on her doping control forms, but her legal team argued she did not do so because she did not take these products every day and did not see the need to list them as they were legal.

Her lawyers also tried to argue that meldonium's very presence on the banned list is a matter of dispute as there is little evidence of its performance-enhancing qualities. CAS did not engage in this particular debate but it will be something for WADA to ponder.

Press Association

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