Maria Shara­pova to re­turn in April af­ter dop­ing ban re­duced

Malta Independent - - SPORT -

Maria Shara­pova will be el­i­gi­ble to re­turn to com­pet­i­tive tennis in April af­ter her two-year dop­ing ban was re­duced to 15 months yes­ter­day by a sports court that found the Rus­sian star bore no "sig­nif­i­cant fault" for her pos­i­tive drug test and did not in­tend to cheat.

The Court of Ar­bi­tra­tion for Sport cut nine months off the sus­pen­sion im­posed on Shara­pova, who tested pos­i­tive for the banned heart med­i­ca­tion mel­do­nium at the Aus­tralian Open in Jan­uary.

Shara­pova, a five-time Grand Slam cham­pion and for­mer No. 1ranked player, ap­pealed to CAS in June seek­ing to over­turn or re­duce the two-year penalty im­posed by the In­ter­na­tional Tennis Fed­er­a­tion.

In a 28-page rul­ing , the CAS panel found that Shara­pova bore "some de­gree of fault" but "less than sig­nif­i­cant fault" in the case that has side­lined one of the world's most prom­i­nent and wealthy fe­male athletes.

"The panel has de­ter­mined, un­der the to­tal­ity of the cir­cum­stances, that a sanc­tion of 15 months is ap­pro­pri­ate here given her de­gree of fault," the three-man ar­bi­tra­tion body ruled.

While Shara­pova did com­mit a dop­ing vi­o­la­tion, "un­der no cir­cum­stances ... can the player be con­sid­ered to be an 'in­ten­tional doper,'" the panel said.

Shara­pova's ban, which took ef­fect on Jan. 26, was orig­i­nally due to run un­til Jan. 25, 2018. Now she can re­turn on April 26, 2017, a month ahead of the French Open, a Grand Slam tour­na­ment she has won twice.

"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," Shara­pova said in a state­ment.

"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," she added. "Tennis is my pas­sion and I have missed it. I am count­ing the days un­til I can re­turn to the court."

The dop­ing sus­pen­sion kept the 29-year-old Shara­pova out of this year's French Open, Wim­ble­don and U.S. Open, as well as the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She will also miss the 2017 Aus­tralian Open in Jan­uary.

"Maria is ab­so­lutely one of the stars of the game, so she's missed when she's not avail­able to play," WTA CEO Steve Si­mon told The As­so­ci­ated Press. "We're very much look­ing for­ward to see­ing her come back to the court next spring."

Si­mon said Shara­pova, who will have to re­build her rank­ing from scratch, is en­ti­tled to "un­lim­ited" wild cards based on her record. He ex­pects her to be granted wild cards as soon as she is el­i­gi­ble, in­clud­ing for the French Open.

"I would be very sur­prised if there are too many tour­na­ments that wouldn't ex­tend her that op­por­tu­nity," Si­mon said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. "I think she'll be able to work her way back onto the tour."

Shara­pova ac­knowl­edged tak­ing mel­do­nium be­fore each match at last year's Aus­tralian Open, where she lost in the quar­ter­fi­nals to Ser­ena Wil­liams. The ITF said she also tested pos­i­tive for mel­do­nium in an out-of-com­pe­ti­tion con­trol in Mos­cow on Fe­bru­ary 2.

Shara­pova's lawyer, John Hag­gerty, called Tues­day's rul­ing a "stun­ning re­pu­di­a­tion" of the ITF, which he said failed to prop­erly no­tify play­ers of the mel­do­nium ban.

WADA ac­knowl­edged that CAS "fully scru­ti­nized all avail­able in­for­ma­tion and ev­i­dence" in the case and said it abides by the rul­ing.

Shara­pova said she was first pre­scribed the Lat­vian-made drug by her fam­ily doc­tor for var­i­ous med­i­cal is­sues in 2006. She said she took the drug for reg­u­lar bouts of the flu, pos­si­ble on­set of di­a­betes and a mag­ne­sium de­fi­ciency.

An independent ITF panel had found that Shara­pova did not in­tend to cheat but bore "sole re­spon­si­bil­ity" and "very sig­nif­i­cant fault" for the pos­i­tive test. The ITF panel also said the case "in­evitably led to the con­clu­sion" that she took the sub­stance "for the pur­pose of en­hanc­ing her per­for­mance."

Mel­do­nium in­creases blood flow, which im­proves ex­er­cise ca­pac­ity by car­ry­ing more oxy­gen to the mus­cles.

More than 100 athletes, in­clud­ing many Rus­sians and other east­ern Euro­peans, tested pos­i­tive for mel­do­nium early in the year. Some es­caped with no sanc­tions be­cause they ar­gued suc­cess­fully that they stopped tak­ing the drug be­fore Jan. 1 and that traces had lin­gered in their sys­tem. Shara­pova, how­ever, ac­knowl­edged that she used mel­do­nium af­ter Jan. 1.

A hear­ing on Shara­pova's ap­peal was held in New York on Sept. 78. The player and her le­gal team ar­gued that she bore no sig­nif­i­cant fault or neg­li­gence and her ban should be re­duced to "time served," or about eight months.

"I have learned from this, and I hope the ITF has as well," Shara­pova said. "I have taken re­spon­si­bil­ity from the very be­gin­ning for not know­ing that the over-the­counter sup­ple­ment I had been tak­ing for the last 10 years was no longer al­lowed."

Head, Shara­pova's racket sup­plier, hailed the CAS rul­ing as "jus­tice be­ing served."

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