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Sharapova to head to CAS after ITF issues two-year ban

Maria Sharapova has today (Wednesday) been handed a two-year ban by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) having failed a doping test at the Australian Open in January, with the Russian superstar set to appeal the ruling at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

An independent tribunal appointed under the 2016 Tennis Anti-Doping Programme found that Sharapova committed an anti-doping rule violation and as a consequence has disqualified the affected results and imposed a period of ineligibility of two years, backdated to January 26.

The 29-year-old provided a urine sample on January 26, after her quarter-final match at the Australian Open grand slam tournament in Melbourne. The sample was sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada)-accredited laboratory in Montreal, Canada for analysis, and was found to contain meldonium, a metabolic modulator that was included on the 2016 Wada Prohibited List from January 1.

In taking “full responsibility” for the failed test, Sharapova in March said that she had been taking a drug she knew as mildronate for health reasons since 2006. “A few days ago, after I received a letter from the ITF, I found out it also has another name of meldonium, which I did not know,” she said, when confessing to the failed doping test at the Australian Open.

Following a hearing on May 18-19, the independent tribunal issued its ruling today. The tribunal said it elected to backdate the ban due to Sharapova’s “prompt admission” of her violation. Her ban from tennis will now end at midnight on January 25, 2018. The tribunal added that her results at the 2016 Australian Open should be disqualified, with resulting forfeiture of the ranking points and prize money that she won at that event.

In the wake of the verdict, Sharapova issued a statement on her official Facebook page stating she would appeal the decision. Sharapova said: “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. I will immediately appeal the suspension portion of this ruling to CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport.”

She added: “I intend to stand for what I believe is right and that’s why I will fight to be back on the tennis court as soon as possible.”

The ITF had provisionally suspended the five-time Grand Slam champion from March 12, and her singles ranking on the women’s WTA Tour has since sunk to 26. Sharapova has been known as one of the world’s most marketable athletes and in the wake of her admittance to the failed doping test her commercial partners took differing approaches to their partnerships.

Sports equipment manufacturer Head extended its endorsement contract, stating she had “earned the benefit of the doubt” after making an “honest” mistake. Head has partnered with Sharapova since 2011.

Sportswear giant Nike suspended its relationship with Sharapova and watchmaker Tag Heuer curtailed talks over an extension of their endorsement deal. Meanwhile, Porsche said in a statement that it has "chosen to postpone planned activities" with Sharapova "until further details are released and we can analyse the situation".

Sharapova had been the highest-earning female athlete in the world in each of the past 11 years, according to Forbes business magazine. However, she this week lost this crown to fellow tennis star Serena Williams as Forbes issued its latest rankings.

The Russian Tennis Federation (RTF) last month named Sharapova in its team for the 2016 Olympic Games, but she is now set to be replaced following the ITF ban.