Russian superstar Maria Sharapova was on Wednesday handed a two-year doping ban but insisted she will appeal the suspension, which could effectively end one of sport’s most celebrated careers.
Sharapova, 29, tested positive for the controversial banned medication meldonium during January’s Australian Open. A statement on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) website said “an Independent Tribunal” had “found that Maria Sharapova committed an Anti-Doping Rule Violation” and consequently had “disqualified the affected results and imposed a period of ineligibility of two years, commencing on Jan. 26, 2016.”
Sharapova blasted the ban as “unfairly harsh” in a statement on her Facebook page. “While the tribunal concluded correctly that I did not intentionally violate the anti-doping rules, I cannot accept an unfairly harsh two-year suspension,” fumed Sharapova. “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 CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport.”
Sharapova slammed the ITF for spending “tremendous amounts of time and resources trying to prove I intentionally violated the anti-doping rules” before adding that “the tribunal concluded I did not.”
The U.S.-based Russian failed a drugs test on Jan. 26 and was charged with an anti-doping violation on March 2. In a packed press conference in Los Angeles a few days later, she admitted to taking meldonium but said she hadn’t realized it was on the banned substance list.
Meldonium was added to the world anti-doping WADA list on Jan. 1. Sharapova said she’d been taking it for 10 years to help treat illnesses, a heart issue and a magnesium deficiency. Her ban is backdated to Jan. 26 and due to end on Jan. 25, 2018.
She has had her results from the Australian Open annulled and has forfeited her tournament prize money and ranking points.
WTA chief executive Steve Simon said the organization hoped the controversy would be quickly resolved. “It is important at all times for players to be aware of the rules and to follow them. In this case, Maria has taken responsibility for her mistake from the outset,” said Simon in a statement.
“The WTA supports the process that the ITF and Maria have followed. The ITF has made its ruling and, under the Tennis Anti-Doping Program, the decision may be appealed to the Court Arbitration for Sport. The WTA will continue to follow this closely and we hope it will be resolved as soon as possible.”
Sharapova, a former world number one whose ranking has slumped to 26, has won 35 career titles including five Grand Slams—the Australian Open (2008), French Open (2012, 2014), Wimbledon (2004) and U.S. Open (2006). Her win at Wimbledon in 2004 when she was just 17 launched her into the world of mega-million dollar deals and A-list celebrity.
Her rags-to-riches story captured the imagination of the public who lapped up the tale of her leaving the Soviet Union as a child with her penniless father to live and train in Florida. She had been the world’s highest earning sportswoman for 11 years until this week when, according to Forbes Magazine, she was overtaken by bitter rival Serena Williams.
Williams earned $28.9 million over the past 12 months, the financial magazine reported in an article posted on its website.
Sharapova had dominated in endorsement profits before companies including Nike, American Express, Porsche and TAG Heuer distanced themselves after she tested positive for meldonium earlier this year.
Sharapova earned $21.9 million over the past 12 months, down almost $8 million from the previous year, Forbes said.
Despite the two-year suspension, Sharapova vowed to keep fighting. “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,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “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.”
Russia’s former men’s tennis great Yevgeny Kafelnikov said he considered Sharapova’s two-year ban to be fair. “They’re competent people in charge of this sphere,” R-Sport agency quoted Kafelnikov as saying. “If they decided so, let it be as it is. That means their decision is fair.”
Russia’s Fed Cup skipper Anastasia Myskina said that Sharapova’s ban was bad news for all the country’s tennis lovers as well as the team as it will rule her out of the Olympics. “Unfortunately it’s happened,” Myskina said. “It’s a very bad piece of news for all of us, who love tennis, who want to see Masha [Sharapova] in the team.”
Russian tennis federation chief Shamil Tarpishchev meanwhile said that Ekaterina Makarova will likely replace Sharapova in the country’s squad at the Rio Olympics.