Maria Sharapova, who is the world’s richest female athlete, will be suspended from tennis after she admitted to failing a drug test at the Australian Open in January.
A sombre looking Sharapova, speaking at a press conference in Los Angeles on Monday, said she’d been taking the drug, meldonium, since 2006 and didn’t realize it was declared a banned substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at the start of 2016.
The International Tennis Federation, about an hour after her admission, then said on its website that the 28-year old would be provisionally banned from March 12 pending determination of the case. The usual penalty for first-time offenders is two years.
The failed drug test came on January 26, after Sharapova lost to Serena Williams in the quarterfinals, and she was charged with an anti-doping violation on March 2, the governing body additionally said.
There was much speculation that Sharapova’s Monday briefing with reporters centered on retirement plans following an increasing number of injuries, but the failed test was a bigger bombshell. And it came in the wake of match-fixing allegations that rocked tennis in Melbourne.
“A few days ago I received a letter from the (International Tennis Federation) that I failed a drug test at the Australian Open,” the five-time grand slam winner said in the press conference that was streamed live on Sharapova’s website. “I did fail the test and take full responsibility for it.
“For the past 10 years I have been given a medicine called mildronate by my doctor, my family doctor, and a few days ago after I received the ITF letter I found out that it also has another name, meldonium, which I did not know.
“It’s very important for you to understand for 10 years this medicine was not on WADA’s banned list and I had been legally taking the medicine for the past 10 years. But on January 1 the rules had changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance, which I had not known.”
Sharapova would later say she began taking the medication, which can be used to treat heart issues, after irregular EKGs and being deficient in magnesium. Her family also has a history of diabetes, she added.
Her revelation came on the same day that Russia’s Olympic ice dance gold medalist Ekaterina Bobrova said she failed a doping test for the same drug.
In a statement on its website, WADA said meldonium was prohibited because of evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance. The anti-ischemic drug can aid oxygen intake and recovery.
WADA stated in September that the drug would be added to the prohibited list and Sharapova blamed herself for not taking note.
“I received an email on December 22 from WADA about the changes happening to the banned list and you can see prohibited items, and I didn’t click that link.
“I made a huge mistake. I let my fans down and I let the sport down. I have been playing since the age of four a sport that I love so deeply.
“I know that with this I face consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way. I really hope that I will be given another chance to play (tennis).”
Steve Simon, CEO of the WTA women’s tour, was saddened by the development but said it was down to Sharapova to make sure she knew the rules.
“I am very saddened to hear this news about Maria,” Simon, who became CEO in October, said in a statement. “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.”
If she is given a full suspension, Sharapova would, easily, become the highest profile tennis player to be sanctioned.
Marin Cilic received a nine-month ban, before the Croatian became the U.S. Open champion in 2014, and former top-15 pro Viktor Troicki was suspended for 18 months for failing to provide a blood sample in 2013. Mariano Puerta was banned twice, the second occasion coming months after he made the 2005 French Open final.
Encouragingly for Sharapova, Cilic and Troicki had their suspensions reduced by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, to four and 12 months, respectively.
Martina Hingis, meanwhile, retired for a second time in 2007 after the five-time singles grand slam champion tested positive for cocaine. The Swiss has since returned to tennis, in doubles.
Nick Bollettieri, the Hall of Fame coach instrumental to Sharapova’s early success, hoped she would be shown leniency.
“If it was just boom, boom, boom, the drug was illegal for all these years and she knew it, that’s a different story,” he said. “But when (the email) happened, nine days before the end of the year … that eased off my pain and I said to myself, ‘She’s not denying it, she’s not trying to say give me mercy, but let me play again.’
“I’m just praying that her record speaks loud and clear, what she’s contributed.
“She’s handled everything today the way she’s handled everything in life, like a lady.”
Sharapova, a rags-to-riches story who was born in Siberia, also runs her own successful candy company, Sugarpova. She is estimated to be worth $195million.
“I tell you what I would do if I was one of her sponsors,” said Bollettieri. “I would say, ‘In life, almost everybody will make mistakes. This young lady said she made a mistake by not reading the banned list and accepted responsibility.’
“If I was a sponsor, I would take that into consideration. She’s not saying spare me. She’s not asking that.”
However, several endorsement deals she had have suffered severance.
Sporting company, Nike has suspended its relationship with the five-time Grand Slam tennis champion.
Also, Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer announced that it will not be renewing its contract with the tennis star.
Nike said it was saddened and surprised at her admission that she tested positive for a banned substance at the Australian Open in January.
Her relationship with Nike dates back to when she was 11 years old.
“We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues,” the company said.
“We will continue to monitor the situation.”
Tag Heuer was in talks to extend its deal with Ms Sharapova, which ran out at the end of last year.
However, Tag Heuer said those talks have now been suspended and the company has decided not to renew the contract.
In 2010, the 28-year-old Russian tennis player signed a new eight-year contract with the US sportswear giant worth $70m (£49m) as well as a cut on sales of her own branded clothes.
Ms Sharapova is the world’s highest paid female athlete after earning nearly $30m in 2015 from winnings and endorsements, according to Forbes. These include contracts with Evian, Tag Heuer, Porsche.
In 2014, Porsche named her as its first female ambassador.
Ms Sharapova, who lives in Florida, is also the face of Avon perfume Luck.
Last month, Nike dropped Manny Pacquiao after the boxer said homosexual people were worse than animals.
The company also severed ties with cyclist and drugs cheat Lance Armstrong as well as athlete Oscar Pistorius, who killed his girlfriend.