Maria Sharapova will return to professional tennis next April 26 - one week after she turns 30 years old, and 15 months after a positive doping test at the 2016 Australian Open derailed her career.
IMG, the agency that represents her, came prepared: an e-mail containing several documents containing some of the backup for Sharapova’s defence, a “statement of facts” and a statement from Sharapova arrived via e-mail shortly after the official verdict was announced at 9 a.m. EDT Tuesday.
Sharapova is already scheduled for the Charlie Rose show later Tuesday:
“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,” was part of Sharapova’s statement.
There are pages and pages of legalese surrounding this process, which has played out over more than six months. But it comes down to this: Sharapova admits that she bore some fault. Not a lot of fault. She didn’t intentionally dope. Generally she was on top of this anti-doping stuff. She goofed that one time; her agent messed up. The ITF and WTA should have worked harder to let her know, the way several other sporting federations (including the Russian weightlifting federation) did.
Had the Court of Arbitration for Sport panel decided, despite the earlier decision, that Sharapova bore “no significant fault”, it might have reduced to the suspension to 12 months and allowed her to return to action at the Australian Open in January.
In deciding on 15 months, the CAS basically agreed with Sharapova’s assessment of her level of fault, even if it’s not buying a lot of the justification for it.
In the wake of all the information about meldonium that has come out in the interim – including the fact that nearly 300 mostly Eastern-European athletes tested positive for it in the first half of 2016 –Sharapova will have more than served her time; 15 months for being sloppy is a lot. The fact that she didn’t include the substance among the list of medications and supplements she was taking probably the biggest reason her suspension wasn’t reduced even more.
She probably did as well in this as she could have. The relative “mildness” of the product in question makes it easier for the undecided to go easy on her, something that might not have happened, for example had she tested positive for a steroid. With a big agency behind her and three lawyers and infinite resources at her disposal, she covered every base in terms of her appeals. Some of it stretched credulity, for sure. But when you’re fighting for your career, and you can afford it, you’ll leave no stone unturned.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter why Sharapova took the meldonium. It doesn’t matter why she got caught or what the relevant tennis organizations should have done - although clearly, all could have and should have done more. It may come down to a culture that doesn't think its sport has a serious drug issue, something that was questioned in an ESPN report released Monday.
Sharapova states it was regrettable that the WTA Tour didn’t do more to ensure everyone knew about the drug's status given “nearly half” of its top-100 players were from Russia or Eastern Europe. That might be so, but as far as we know, only two tested positive and only one – Sharapova – failed to note the Jan. 1 change in status. And none of those players have the large team around them that Sharapova does.
But it’s done now.
One thing’s for sure - the WTA Tour badly needs her to get back to top form. She’s one of two players (the other being Serena Williams) who actually sells a significant amount of tickets, and Williams plays far fewer of the WTA-only, non-joint events that to survive and thrive need them both.
The time away will have allowed Sharapova’s various physical niggles to heal, so that might be one positive that came out of it. She has kept busy, impressively so. But she may need tennis nearly as badly as it needs her not so much from a financial standpoint, but as the base around which so much of her off-court earning power is based. Plus, whenever she does decide to exit, it really should be on her own terms.
Hopefully Sharapova will come back on a mission because, at 30, the clock will be ticking and she’ll be starting all over again.
Sharapova waited a long time for a definitive return date.
Here’s the timeline:
March 2: Sharapova officially with the anti-doping violation after testing positive for meldonium both at the Australian Open and shortly thereafter in an out-of-competition test in Moscow. She was provisionally suspended for two years.
March 7: She holds an extraordinary press conference at a Los Angeles hotel (with ugly carpeting) to get out in front of the story, admitting she took the substance after it went from the “monitored” list to the “banned” list Jan. 1. On the same day, Russian figure skater Ekaterina Bobrova also tested positive. The following day, the coach of Russian five-time world champion speed skater Pavel Kulizhinikov announced that he did as well.
April 29: Little-known doubles specialist Sergey Betov of Belarus was announced as having tested positive for meldonium, also at the Australian Open. He was provisionally suspended March 12 but the ITF accepted it was “more likely than not” that the Meldonium was taken back in October before it was banned and that he “bore no fault or negligence”. He was free to start competing again immediately.
May 18-19: A hearing of the independent tribunal is held to rule on Sharapova’s appeal.
May 24: At the French Open, rumours circulated that Varvara Lepchenko, a naturalized American originally from Uzbekistan, had tested positive earlier in the year and had served a so-called “silent ban." Asked repeatedly about this at a press conference after her first-round defeat, Lepchenko declined to address the issue. She didn’t play from late February until the Italian Open in Rome in May.
June 6: The independent tribunal issued its decision in a lengthy document that was long on chastising Sharapova for sloppiness and cast much righteous shade on her version of events. It upheld the two-year penalty.
June 9: Sharapova filed an appear to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in the hope that an expedited decision would go in her favour and she could compete at the Olympics in Rio. The following week, the “expedited procedure” part of it was quashed as Sharapova’s side indicated it needed more time to explore additional witnesses.
June 20: WADA president Craig Reedie, in a prepared speech on the anti-doping program’s challenges, gave meat to allegations that the ITF had come down especially hard on Sharapova because of longtime criticism that its anti-doping program only caught the tiny minnow and never nailed a big fish.
"I suspect that we probably punch pretty well above our weight when it comes to the amount of work that is achieved and the successes that are achieved on a budget of less than $30 million a year … For me, the only satisfactory element in Madame Sharapova’s case was that in one year she can earn more money than the whole of WADA’s budget put together."
Which is, of course, irrelevant. Or should be.
July 11: The ruling on Sharapova’s ban was postponed until September, citing scheduling conflicts. That ruled her out of the Olympics. The court said a verdict was expected by Sept. 19.
Aug. 15: Russian Tennis Federation chief Shamil Tarpischev told Russian media he expected Sharapova to return in January 2017 for the Australian Open. He cited no basis for his opinion.
Sept. 1: After an announcement earlier in the summer by ITF president David Haggerty that even provisional bans (such as the one Lepchenko served) would now be announced when they took place instead of after the fact, the changes took effect.
Sept. 7-8: Sharapova's appeal hearing finally took place in New York.
Sept. 20: The ITF declared Lepchenko bore “no fault or negligence” for her positive doping test in Brisbane in January. She got to keep her Australian Open prize money. According to the New York Times, the concentration of meldonium in her system was 93 times that of Betov's; that concentration diminished with three subsequent positive tests, and she was given the benefit of the doubt that she had last taken it in December, before the ban went into effect.
Oct. 4: Maria Sharapova wins appeal to Court of Arbitration for Sport, reducing ITF ban from two years to 15 months.