Maria Sharapova doping ban reduced from two years to 15 months

Maria Sharapova's two-year doping ban is cut to 15 months after her appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport

Maria Sharapova has had her doping ban reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), it was announced in Lausanne today.

The Russian was banned for two years by an independent tribunal after failing a doping test for meldonium during the Australian Open in January.

The ban, which was backdated to the start of this year, will run out on 25 April 2017, just days after her 30th birthday, thus making her eligible to play at the French Open, where she is a two-time champion, next May.

The Russian, who was ranked No4 at the start of the year, 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.

The two-year ban imposed by the ITF tribunal after a two-day hearing in May was 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.

An angry Sharapova took to Facebook to criticise, in particular, the ITF: “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… I will immediately appeal the suspension portion of this ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.”

That CAS hearing took place a month ago, and its conclusion was that: “Although Ms Sharapova was at fault, her plea of No Significant Fault or Negligence should be upheld, triggering a discretion to reduce the otherwise applicable two-year sanction by up to 50 per cent. Based on its analysis of Ms Sharapova’s degree of fault, the CAS panel decided that the sanction should be reduced in this case to 15 months.”

The extenuating circumstances were outlined by CAS thus:

“The panel found that Ms Sharapova had a reduced perception of the risk that she took while using Mildronate because:

(a) she had used Mildronate [trade name for meldonium] for around 10 years without any anti-doping issue,

(b) she had consulted the Russian doctor who prescribed the Mildronate for medical reasons, not to enhance her performance, and

(c) she had received no specific warning about the change in status of meldonium from WADA, the ITF, or the WTA.

“In addition, the CAS panel considered that it was reasonable for Ms Sharapova to entrust the checking of the Prohibited List each year to her agent.

“However, the CAS panel found that Ms Sharapova was at fault for

(a) failing to give her agent adequate instructions as to how to carry out the important task of checking the Prohibited List, and

(b) failing to supervise and control the actions of her agent in carrying out that task… The CAS panel also noted Ms Sharapova’s failure to disclose her use of meldonium on her doping control forms.”

After the ruling, Sharapova again went to her Facebook page to share her reactions to the news. “I’ve gone from one of the toughest days of my career last March when I learned about my suspension to now, one of my happiest days, as I found out I can return to tennis in April.

“In so many ways, I feel like something I love was taken away from me and it will feel really good to have it back. Tennis is my passion and I have missed it. I am counting the days until I can return to the court… And to my fans, I thank you so much for living and breathing so many of these tough months together. During this time, I have learned the true meaning of a fan and I am so fortunate to have had your support. I’m coming back soon and I can’t wait!”

She did not miss the opportunity to chastise the ITF, however—and perhaps did herself no favours by referring to the medication that she was prescribed as an “over-the-counter supplement”, nor in comparing the tennis anti-doping systems with those of eastern Europe, “where Mildronate is commonly taken by millions of people.”

Sharapova is currently ranked 95, and will look to return to the WTA tour during the clay season, though will be hoping for some wild cards into the initial Premier-tier events such as Madrid and Rome, which are followed closely by Roland Garros.

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