Angry Maria Sharapova will appeal ‘unfairly harsh’ two-year doping ban

Maria Sharapova is banned for two years by the International Tennis Federation for failing a drugs test

Maria Sharapova has been banned for two years by the International Tennis Federation after failing a drugs test at this year’s Australian Open.

The findings of the independent tribunal, held in May, to investigate the case of Sharapova have been published by the ITF’s anti-doping panel, and confirmed that the five-time Grand Slam champion will be banned for two years, backdated to the failed test in January.

The ban is longer than many had predicted—though had Sharapova been found guilty of taking meldonium in an attempt to deliberately enhance her performance, she faced a maximum of four years.

Sharapova shocked not just tennis but the sports community around the world when she announced at a press conference in March: “I wanted to let you know that a few days ago I received a letter from the ITF that I had failed a drug test at the Australian Open. I take full responsibility for it.”

She went on to explain that she had been taking meldonium, on prescription from her Russian doctor, for 10 years for “several health issues going on at the time.” She added: “It made me healthy, that’s why I continued to take it.”

Meldonium was not on Wada’s banned list until the start of this year—though Sharapova and her team were negligent in reading the documents sent to all players informing them of the changes. But also in her favour was her quick decision to ‘front up’ about the issue, and she insisted then, as now, that she never used the medication as a performance enhancer.

ITF statement on Maria Sharapova

On 2 March 2016, Ms Sharapova was charged with an Anti-Doping Rule Violation… She promptly admitted that she had committed the Anti-Doping Rule Violation charged, and asked for a hearing before an Independent Tribunal in accordance with Article 8 of the Programme to determine the consequences to be imposed on her for that violation.

At a two-day hearing on 18-19 May 2016, the Independent Tribunal received evidence and heard legal arguments from both parties, and subsequently issued a reasoned decision on 8 June. It determined that:

1) Ms Sharapova should serve a period of ineligibility of two years;

2) due to her prompt admission of her violation, that period of ineligibility should be back-dated to commence from 26 January 2016 (the date of sample collection) and so should end at midnight on 25 January 2018; and

3) her results at the 2016 Australian Open should be disqualified, with resulting forfeiture of the ranking points and prize money that she won at that event.

So in the face of today’s decision, an angry Sharapova immediately took to Facebook to criticise, in particular, the ITF: “Today with their decision of a two-year suspension, the ITF tribunal unanimously concluded that what I did was not intentional. The tribunal found that I did not seek treatment from my doctor for the purpose of obtaining a performance enhancing substance.

“The ITF spent tremendous amounts of time and resources trying to prove I intentionally violated the anti-doping rules and the tribunal concluded I did not. You need to know that the ITF asked the tribunal to suspend me for four years—the required suspension for an intentional violation—and the tribunal rejected the ITF’s position.

“While the tribunal concluded correctly that I did not intentionally violate the anti-doping rules, I cannot accept an unfairly harsh two-year suspension.

“The tribunal, whose members were selected by the ITF, agreed that I did not do anything intentionally wrong, yet they seek to keep me from playing tennis for two years. I will immediately appeal the suspension portion of this ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.”

She concluded with a message to her fans and supporters.

“I have missed playing tennis and I have missed my amazing fans, who are the best and most loyal fans in the world. I have read your letters. I have read your social media posts and your love and support has gotten me through these tough days. I intend to stand for what I believe is right and that’s why I will fight to be back on the tennis court as soon as possible. Love Maria.”

Sharapova has only played the Australian Open this year, where she reached the quarter-finals while No5 in the world. She is already down to No26, and will be approaching her 31st birthday by the time she returns to the tour—unless she makes a favourable appeal.

But it means, at the very least, that she will play no part in what is likely to be her last chance at a gold medal in the Olympics in Rio in August: She won silver in London 2012.

She has also, since her interim ban from the tour, lost her place at the top of earnings table to Serena Williams, less so because of prize-winnings but rather because of loss of sponsorship. Pending this announcement, Nike and Porsche had suspended their partnerships with the super-star, and luxury watchmaker TAG Heuer decided not to extend its collaboration.

At that press conference in March, Sharapova said: “I know there are consequences [to the failed doping test] and I don’t want to end my career this way and I really hope that I will be given another chance to play this game.”

But now it will be a waiting game, though judging by the concluding statement of the Tribunal itself, the signs are not in Sharapova’s favour: “If she had not concealed her use of Mildronate from the anti-doping authorities, members of her own support team and the doctors whom she consulted, but had sought advice, then the contravention would have been avoided. She is the sole author of her own misfortune.”

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