By Alan Baldwin
(Reuters) – Maria Sharapova is counting the days until she can return to action having been cleared to play again next April after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) reduced the former world number one’s two-year drugs ban by nine months on Tuesday.
The 29-year-old Sharapova, who can return from April 26 and will be able to play in three of the year’s four grand slams, said she could not wait to get back on court.
The Russian, whose case polarized opinion and lost her sponsorship, was handed the original ban – backdated to start on Jan. 26, 2016 – by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) following a positive test for the drug meldonium.
Meldonium was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) list of banned substances at the start of the year after mounting evidence that it boosted blood flow and enhanced athletic performance.
The arbitration panel reduced the ban to 15 months and found that she “bore some degree of fault” through relying on her agent Max Eisenbud to check the prohibited list for changes and failing to ensure he had done so.
In a statement hailing one of the happiest days of her career, and criticizing the ITF at the same time, Sharapova said she had learned a lesson and hoped the authorities had too.
“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,” the five-times grand slam champion wrote on her Facebook page.
“Tennis is my passion and I have missed it. I am counting the days until I can return to the court.”
Sharapova, who earned $29.7 million last year as the world’s highest paid female athlete, had called the ITF’s original ruling “unfairly harsh” as an independent tribunal had found that she had not intentionally violated anti-doping rules.
The player admitted taking meldonium during the season’s opening grand slam in Melbourne but said she had been unaware that it had been banned by WADA.
‘UNDER THE BUS’
“I have learned from this, and I hope the ITF has as well,” said Sharapova, adding that she had always taken responsibility for not knowing the over-the-counter supplement she had taken for 10 years was no longer allowed.
She said other federations had been much better at notifying their athletes of the rule change, especially in Eastern Europe where meldonium, or mildronate, was 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 tennis player will have to go through what I went through,” she added.
American Pam Shriver, a former grand slam doubles champion, said on Twitter that Sharapova’s statement “throws the ITF under the bus”.
The ITF, the sport’s world governing body, said in a statement that it believed the appropriate steps were taken to publicize changes to the banned list.
“Nonetheless, we have reviewed, and will continue to review, our processes for communicating changes to the Prohibited List to players with the aim of ensuring that no player can claim that they had not been fully informed,” the statement added.
Steve Simon, chief executive of the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) said: “The TADP (tennis anti-doping program) has a comprehensive and fair process in place and we support the final result.
“We are pleased that the process is now at completion and we can look forward to seeing Maria back on court in 2017.”
Shamil Tarpishev, president of the Russian tennis federation, welcomed the reduction in the length of the ban.
“It’s good, they reduced the ban,” he told Russia’s TASS news agency. “We want her to play for the national team and win the next Olympics for us.”
Sharapova’s sponsors Head, who stuck with the Russian when others either terminated or suspended their agreements, said justice had been served and that it was “wholly unfair” that the suspension had been imposed in the first place.
(Writing by Alan Baldwin in London, editing by Ed Osmond)