Maria Sharapova received a two-year suspension from the International Tennis Federation (ITF) after testing positive for banned drug meldonium, which may end the career of the richest female athlete of the past decade.
The ITF made the announcement Wednesday, ending weeks of speculation about the future of the former world No. 1. Sharapova — whose case was heard by a three-person tribunal on May 18 and 19 — immediately said on her Facebook page she would appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which will have the final say on the matter.
The ITF — which sought a four-year punishment — told CNN it wouldn’t be appealing to CAS, while the World Anti-Doping Agency will review the decision before deciding whether or not to take the matter to Swiss-based court.
The two-year ban is in line with non-specified substances such as meldonium for first-time offenders who aren’t deemed to have intentionally cheated.
“The ITF tribunal unanimously concluded that what I did was not intentional,” the 29-year-old Sharapova said. “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.”
However, Sharapova certainly wasn’t an innocent party, as laid out by the tribunal’s 33-page ruling.
“She is the sole author of her misfortune,” it stated in its conclusion.
And WTA head Steve Simon, replying to the verdict, emphasized the importance of players to follow the rules.
“It is important at all times for players to be aware of the rules and to follow them,” Simon said. “In this case, Maria has taken responsibility for her mistake from the outset. The WTA supports the process that the ITF and Maria have followed.”
Sharapova stunned the world in March when the five-time grand slam winner said in a Los Angeles press conference arranged by her entourage that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open on January 26. She received a provisional ban on March 12.
While racket provider Head stood by her, other sponsors distanced themselves from Sharapova, including Nike and watch maker Tag Heuer. Just this week, her 11-year reign as the world’s richest female athlete came to an end. She was replaced by a bitter rival on the tennis court, Serena Williams.
Sharapova claimed she had been taking meldonium since 2006 for heart issues, a magnesium deficiency and because her family has a history of diabetes.
Sharapova, who has continued to promote her candy company Sugarpova since being suspended, said she simply failed to read an email that stated meldonium would be added to the banned list on Jan. 1. It was an oversight, she said, adding that she knew the drug by its trade name Mildronate.
If Sharapova was simply too busy to find out whether meldonium was a banned substance at the start of the year, surely someone on her team would have checked. According to evidence given to the tribunal, her IMG agent Max Eisenbud was the lone member of her current team who knew she was taking the drug — not her coach Sven Groeneveld, physiotherapist or nutritionist. It was Eisenbud’s task to check each year but going through a separation contributed to him not looking at the updated list in the off-season in 2015. Eisenbud said he conducted such matters while on holiday in the Caribbean but didn’t go last year due to his personal circumstances.
Eisenbud and Groeneveld didn’t reply to emails seeking comment.
Meldonium isn’t approved for use in the U.S. — where Sharapova has lived since the age of seven — by the Food and Drug Administration. She started using meldonium under the care of a doctor in Russia, Anatoly Skalny, as part of a mix of 18 supplements and medications. They cut ties in 2012, though the player didn’t come off the drug. Sharapova said she only told one doctor or practitioner after that time she was on the drug and no one else — Russian Olympic doctor Sergei Yasnitsky — despite being in intermittent contact with other medical officials.
Her explanation that no one asked her what medication she was taking didn’t cut it with the tribunal.
“The tribunal finds it hard to credit that no medical practitioner whom she consulted over a period of 3 years, with the exception of Dr. Yasnitsky, would, in accordance with standard medical practice, have asked her what medications she was taking,” it said.
Meldonium was added to the prohibited list “because of evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance,” WADA said on its website.
Boosting endurance and helping in the recovery process are potential benefits for athletes. Sharapova took meldonium before matches but never declared it on doping control forms, including at the Australian Open this year. She tested positive five times for meldonium in 2015.
“The manner of its use, on match days and when undertaking intensive training, is only consistent with an intention to boost her energy levels,” the tribunal said in the ruling. “It may be that she genuinely believed that Mildronate had some general beneficial effect on her health but the manner in which the medication was taken, its concealment from the anti-doping authorities, her failure to disclose it even to her own team, and the lack of any medical justification must inevitably lead to the conclusion that she took Mildronate for the purpose of enhancing her performance.”
Sharapova, one of tennis’ top competitors, vowed to “fight” to return to the court soon.
“I have missed playing tennis and I have missed my amazing fans, who are the best and most loyal fans in the world,” she said. “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.”