London - Maria Sharapova was suspended for two years Wednesday for
testing positive for meldonium at the Australian Open.
The five-time Grand Slam champion was provisionally suspended by
the International Tennis Federation in early March, when she announced at a
news conference in Los Angeles that she failed a doping test in January.
Sharapova said then she was not aware that the World Anti-Doping
Agency had barred athletes from using meldonium, also known as mildronate, as
of Jan. 1.
Her lawyer, John Haggerty, said Sharapova took the substance
after that date.
Wednesday's ruling said Sharapova did not intend to cheat, but
bore "sole responsibility" and "very significant fault" for
the positive test.
In addition to testing positive at the Australian Open, she also
failed a test for meldonium in an out-of-competition control in Moscow on Feb.
2, the ITF said.
The two-year ban can be appealed to the Court of Arbitration for
Sharapova said she first was prescribed the Latvian-made drug,
typically used for heart conditions, for medical reasons in 2006. She could
have been barred from competing for up to four years.
The ITF ruling in Sharapova's case follows a hearing before a
three-person panel. Lawyers representing the ITF argued their side, while
Haggerty argued hers. He said she spoke at the hearing.
The ban throws into doubt the on-court future of Sharapova, a
29-year-old Russian who is one of the most well-known — and, thanks to a wide
array of endorsements — highest-earning athletes in the world.
She is a former top-ranked player who is one of 10 women in
tennis history with a career Grand Slam — at least one title from each of the
sport's four most important tournaments. So much came so easily for her at the
start: Wimbledon champion in 2004 at age 17; No. 1 in the rankings at 18; U.S.
Open champion at 19; Australian Open champion at 20.
An operation to her right shoulder in 2008 took her off the tour
for months, and her ranking dropped outside the top 100. But she worked her way
back, and in 2012, won the French Open, then added a second title in Paris two
Sharapova hasn't played since a quarter-final loss to Serena
Williams at this year's Australian Open, and she is ranked 26th this week.
Meldonium increases blood flow, which improves exercise capacity
by carrying more oxygen to the muscles.
In April, citing a lack of scientific evidence about how long
the drug remains in a person's system, WADA said that provisional suspensions
may be lifted if it is determined that an athlete took meldonium before it went
on the list of banned substances.
About 200 athletes tested positive for meldonium this year from
various sports and countries — many, like Sharapova, were Russian — and some
said the drug stayed in their systems for months even though they stopped using
it in 2015.
But, according to Haggerty, that was not the case for Sharapova.