The International Tennis Federation (ITF) meted out a two-year ban on Maria Sharapova after testing positive for meldonium, a drug that was recently banned by the organization, according to a CNN report.
The ITF said while Sharapova didn’t purposefully break the rules, it found she was at “very significant fault” for failing to stay abreast of changes to the banned substances list, according to the report.
Following the ITF ruling early Thursday, June 9 (Philippine time), Sharapova immediately said on her Facebook page that she would appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which will have the final say on the matter. Her lawyer, John Haggerty, told CNN he expected the hearing to take place in July.
Despite the ban, some of Sharapova’s sponsors like Nike announced that it was standing by the Russian athlete, the report said.
In a statement cited by CNN, Nike said: “Maria has always made her position clear, has apologized for her mistake and is now appealing the length of the ban.”
“Based on the decision of the ITF and their factual findings, we hope to see Maria back on court and will continue to partner with her,” the sporting brand said.
Nike’s deal with Sharapova has been reported to be worth $70 milion over eight years. The world’s top endorser of athletes, Nike has more than $6 billion in endorsement deals on its books, according to CNN.
Nike and automaker Porsche suspended their sponsorship deals with Sharapova in March after she first announced that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open.
Swiss watch brand TAG Heuer also halted negotiations over renewing a deal.
But another of her sponsors, sports equipment company HEAD, stuck with her, saying it believes she made an “honest mistake.”
Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, an active ingredient in a medication she had been taking for the last decade. The chemical was added to the ITF’s banned substances list in January, and Sharapova has maintained that she wasn’t aware of the change.
The ITF announcement ended weeks of speculation about the future of the former world No. 1. Sharapova — whose case was heard by a three-person tribunal on May 18 and 19, the CNN report said.
The ITF — which sought a four-year punishment — told CNN it wouldn’t be appealing to CAS, while the World Anti-Doping Agency will review the decision before deciding whether or not to take the matter to Swiss-based court, the report said.
The two-year ban is in line with non-specified substances such as meldonium for first-time offenders who aren’t deemed to have intentionally cheated.
“The ITF tribunal unanimously concluded that what I did was not intentional,” the 29-year-old Sharapova said.
“The tribunal found that I did not seek treatment from my doctor for the purpose of obtaining a performance enhancing substance. The ITF spent tremendous amounts of time and resources trying to prove I intentionally violated the anti-doping rules and the tribunal concluded I did not.
“You need to know that the ITF asked the tribunal to suspend me for four years — the required suspension for an intentional violation — and the tribunal rejected the ITF’s position.
“While the tribunal concluded correctly that I did not intentionally violate the anti-doping rules, I cannot accept an unfairly harsh two-year suspension. 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.”
Haggerty, unsurprisingly, supported his client. The ITF, he alleged, wanted to make an example of the Siberian-born Sharapova, according to the CNN report.
“While I am pleased with the ITF’s unanimous ruling about Maria’s lack of intent to violate the rules, I am disappointed that the ITF tribunal gave Maria an unfairly harsh suspension because she is such a famous athlete and they wanted to make an example out of her,” the report quoted an email from Haggerty.
However, Sharapova certainly wasn’t an innocent party, as laid out by the tribunal’s 33-page ruling.
“She is the sole author of her misfortune,” it stated in its conclusion, according to the report.
And WTA head Steve Simon, replying to the verdict, emphasized the importance of players to follow the rules.
“It is important at all times for players to be aware of the rules and to follow them,” Simon said. “In this case, Maria has taken responsibility for her mistake from the outset. The WTA supports the process that the ITF and Maria have followed.”