Maria Sharapova pledged on Tuesday night that she would be ‘counting the days’ until her comeback at the end of April next year.
The former world No 1 was delighted after the Court of Arbitration for Sport produced their latest example of leniency with tennis players in reducing her doping ban from two years to 15 months.
An independent tribunal convened by the International Tennis Federation imposed the original, backdated sentence in June after she tested positive for newly banned meldonium at the Australian Open.
WTA TOUR 2017 – SHARAPOVA’S FIRST FOUR POSSIBLE TOURNAMENTS
Week 18. May 1:
* Grand Prix De SAR La Princesse Lalla Meryem – Rabat
* J&T Banka Prague Open – Prague
Week 19. May 8:
* Mutua Madrid Open – Madrid
Week 20. May 15:
* Internazionali BNL d’Italia – Rome
‘Tennis is my passion and I have missed it. I am counting the days until I can return to the court,’ said Sharapova after hearing the news.
In 2013 CAS also reduced ITF bans on high-profile male players Marin Cilic and Viktor Troicki. Sharapova blamed the governing body for failing to adequately publicise the fact that meldonium had been put on a banned list on January 1.
‘I have taken responsibility from the very beginning for not knowing that the over-the-counter supplement I had been taking for the last 10 years was no longer allowed,’ said the former Wimbledon champion.
‘But I also learned how much better other Federations were at notifying their athletes of the rule change, especially in Eastern Europe where Mildronate is commonly taken by millions of people. Now that this process is over, I hope the ITF and other relevant tennis anti-doping authorities will study what these other Federations did, so that no other player will have to go through what I went through.’
However, her appeal was only partially upheld, and she did not get the reduction to one year she was seeking.
The glamorous Russian, winner of five Grand Slam titles, will be free to compete again from April 26. She could play at Wimbledon but would most likely need to receive a wildcard entry.
The first tournaments for which Sharapova would be eligible – with the gift of a wildcard as she will have lost her ranking – are either in Rabat (Morocco) or Prague.
Theoretically her first Grand Slam would be the French Open, although it would be very contentious for either Paris or Wimbledon to give her a wildcard.
Pat Cash expects Sharapova to receive a hostile reception from the crowd at her first tournament back.
The 1987 Wimbledon champion told the BBC: ‘There’s no doubt her image has been tarnished and her reputation will never be the same. She’s one heck of a tennis player and it will be nice to see her out there, though I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s quite a few boos.’
Sharapova said in a statement: ‘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.
‘I have learned from this, and I hope the ITF has as well. ‘
Sharapova’s defence was based on the fact that she was unaware that Meldonium had been proscribed by the authorities from January 1 this year. She tested positive at the Australian Open.
The official CAS conclusion read that ‘Ms. Sharapova had a reduced perception of the risk that she took while using Mildronate (Meldonium), because (a) she had used Mildronate for around ten 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 ruling also states that she is not entirely blameless: ‘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 (specifically the lack of any procedure for reporting or follow-up verification to make sure that her agent had actually discharged his duty).
‘The CAS panel also noted Ms. Sharapova’s failure to disclose her use of meldonium on her doping control forms.’
The original ban, handed down by an independent three-person panel convened by the International Tennis Federation, was not couched in sympathetic terms for the player.
In concluding that she was ‘the sole author of her own misfortune’, it did acknowledge that she would not have taken the drug, had she known that it had been added to the banned list on January 1.
However, the panel forcibly pointed out that she had deliberately ‘concealed’ the use of Meldonium from everyone she worked with bar her manager at IMG, Max Eisenbud.
Even her personal support team, led by the well-travelled and respected Dutch coach Sven Groeneveld, did not know about it and so were unable to make any checks.
In arguably its most damning paragraph the original judgement was unequivocal: ‘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 (Meldonium) for the purpose of enhancing her performance’.
It was revealed that she ingested doses of it six times in seven days during 2015 Wimbledon and, five times in seven days in the course of this year’s Australian Open.
Meldonium is not licensed for use in either Western Europe or the United States, where Sharapova has lived since childhood.
It has subsequently been shown to be popular among East European athletes, especially Russians, from a wide range of sports.
In spite of all her riches, and being resident in the country with the world’s finest medical care, Sharapova asked people to believe that she took it purely for entirely honest reasons, and not gain an advantage over opponents. Less credulous observers may still find that hard to believe.
Andy Murray was among the players who spoke out at the time, questioning the ethics of athletes taking medication that was not strictly necessary to treat a particular condition.
For all that, most of the blue chip sponsors who have contributed to an estimated annual income of $30 million have proved remarkably loyal.