Maria Sharapova has been provisionally banned from tennis after she revealed on Monday she tested positive at the Australian Open for a recently banned drug that she has been taking for 10 years for health reasons.
The drug is called meldonium, though Sharapova said she had been using it under the name of mildronate and was unaware of both the different name and the fact it is on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list until she received a letter notifying her of the positive test 10 days ago.
“I let my fans down, I let the sport down that I have been playing since the age of four and I love so deeply. I know with this I face consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way and I really hope I will be given another chance to play this game.”
Sharapova claimed she was prescribed meldonium by her doctor in 2006 to deal with health issues such as an irregular heartbeat and a history of diabetes in her family. But the substance was added to the banned list in January of this year because Wada said there was “evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance”.
Sharapova added: “For the past 10 years I have been given a medicine called mildronate by my family doctor and a few days ago after I received the ITF letter I found out that it also has another name of meldonium which I did not know. It is very important for you to understand that for 10 years this medicine was not on Wada’s banned list and I had legally been taking the medicine for the past 10 years. But on 1 January the rules had changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance which I had not known. I failed the test and I take full responsibility for it. I made a huge mistake.”
The ITF said Sharapova, who now faces a ban from the sport, had been informed of the positive test on 2 March and she will be provisionally suspended from 12 March.
One of Sharapova’s biggest sponsors, Nike, announced it had suspended its relationship with her while the investigation continues. “We are saddened and surprised by the news about Maria Sharapova,” a Nike statement read.
However, Shamil Tarpishchev, president of the Russian Tennis Federation, told the Russian news agency TASS he expected Sharapova to be available for this summer’s Rio Olympics after describing the positive test as “nonsense”.
Sharapova’s announcement is almost unprecedented for a top athlete. Most sports stars try to hide positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs, hoping news will not break until a suspension is revealed. But few athletes are like Sharapova who has made herself into the highest-paid female in sport, earning more than $20m annually, through a series of high-end endorsement deals. The implication that Sharapova has been cheating can be a devastating blow to those deals. By revealing the test results herself she is attempting to take control of the story, hoping that by being up front people will believe she is being honest and really was taking mildronate for health purposes.
Meldonium was developed years ago in Latvia to treat patients with heart conditions brought on by a lack of oxygen in their blood. It has become popular with athletes who use the oxygen-enhancers to improve endurance, especially when working out. Last year Wada announced that it was carefully studying the drug, allowing athletes to take it with the warning that it could soon be banned. A few months into that study Wada said meldonium was being moved to 2016’s banned list.
Sharapova has struggled with injuries through most of her career. Her meteoric rise as a teenage sensation was slowed immediately after she reached the world No1 ranking in 2006 with what became a long series of shoulder issues. In recent years she has battled forearm pain and leg ailments. A few days ago she announced she would miss the BNP Paribas tournament at Indian Wells in California because of a forearm injury.
But even with her injuries Sharapova has been a huge force in women’s tennis. Her 6ft 2in frame allows her to have one of the most powerful serves in the game. She is also one of the hardest hitters on the tour and is one of the three best women’s players when healthy. She has won each grand slam tournament once and has also won the French Open a second time, in 2014.
She has long been praised for not letting the attention she receives for her model-like looks distract from her game. Where players like her fellow Russian Anna Kournikova seemed more interested in being celebrities than tennis players, Sharapova has played with an intense dedication, which has added to her popularity with fans and advertisers.
When Sharapova’s publicist first announced Monday’s press conference on Sunday afternoon, speculation turned to the player’s possible retirement. The press release called it a “major announcement” and, given that she has played in only three tournaments in eight months, many thought she was ending her career at the age of 28.
Sharapova’s lawyer, John Haggerty, told reporters that, while athletes use meldonium for performance-enhancing purposes, it is at higher levels than Sharapova was taking. He did not say what that level was or reveal the name of her doctor.
The punishment for a positive test can be up to a four-year ban, though is seems unlikely that Sharapova would get anywhere near four years for a first violation. Still, even a one- or two-year suspension might make it hard for her to return to tennis given her injury history.
Steve Simon, chief executive for the WTA, said: “I am very saddened to hear this news about Maria. Maria is a leader and I have always known her to be a woman of great integrity. Nevertheless, as Maria acknowledged, it is every player’s responsibility to know what they put in their body and to know if it is permissible.
“This matter is now in the hands of the Tennis Anti-Doping Program and its standard procedures. The WTA will support the decisions reached through this process.”
A Wada spokesman said: “Wada is aware of the ongoing case. As is our normal process, and in order to protect the integrity of the case, Wada will refrain from commenting further until a decision has been issued by the ITF. Following that, Wada will review the reasons for the decision and subsequently decide whether or not to use its independent right of appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
“We can confirm that meldonium was added to the 2016 Prohibited List which took effect on 1 January 2016, having previously been on WADA’s monitoring program for the duration of 2015. Meldonium was added [to the Prohibited List] because of evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance.”