12 years ago, Maria Sharapova took the tennis world by surprise by winning the prestigious Wimbledon Crown as a 17-year old teenager. The sensational Russian defeated tournament favorite Serena Williams and created a flutter. It was not just her tennis but Sharapova looked so beautiful on court that sponsors immediately began a beeline to sign her. To prove that Wimbledon win was not fluke, the Russian went on to win four more Grand Slam tournaments and established herself as a big force in women’s tennis over the next decade. With her ravishing good looks and enormous tennis talent, Sharapova was an antithesis of her compatriot Anna Kournikova, who allowed her glamor to dictate the tennis skills. While Kounikova faded away in oblivion, Sharapova thrived and despite several injuries in her career, kept coming back to win several titles. In the 2016 Australian Open quarterfinal on January 26, Sharapova lost to the same Serena Williams but the story this time was quite different. Analysis of Sharapova’s urine sample, taken before the match, revealed the presence of meldonium, a banned substance by WADA and the Russian was served a two-year doping ban from competitive tennis. It was a huge setback for Sharapova, who was already 29 years old. Amid a big hue and cry, Sharapova appealed against the ban by pleading that she had been taking mildronate since 2006 for her health problems and never knew that the drug had the performance enhancement characteristics. But since meldonium came under WADA’s list of banned substances since January 1, 2016, Sharapova couldn’t avoid the ban. However, she approached the Court of Arbitration for Sports, CAS to submit that she had not meant to cheat.
The CAS Panel heard Sharapova’s appeal in New York on Sept. 7-8, 2016 and reserved its decision until yesterday. When their ruling came, they reduced the tennis star’s ban from 2 years to 15 months on the grounds that there was no significant fault or negligence on her part. CAS accepted Sharapova’s claim of no significant fault and said Sharapova had a reduced perception of incurred risk by taking mildronate. The reasons were; a) Sharapova had used mildronate for 10 years without any anti-doping issue; b) She did not seek treatment from her doctor for taking mildronate for performance-enhancing but used it only for medical reasons; c) WADA had not included the substance as a banned drug until January 2016 and d) Sharapova publicly admitted that she had used meldonium and accepted responsibility for it.
Based on these observations, CAS ruled that sanctions against her should be reduced to 15 months based on Sharapova’s degree of fault. CAS also said that Sharapova didn’t deserve to be fully exonerated because she failed to monitor how her agent met the anti-doping obligations imposed on her. She also failed to discuss with her agent about what needed to be done to check the continued availability of mildronate. As per CAS, Sharapova cannot delegate all her obligations to a third-party without providing proper instructions for monitoring or supervising the drug intake.
In the aftermath of the decision, Sharapova can return to tennis courts from 26 April, 2017 onwards. But with her world ranking sliding down to 95 at the moment, she can play at Roland Garros only if she manages a wild-card entry. In the last three years, Sharapova is the third tennis player to have served the doping ban before returning to mainstream competitions. The other two before her were Croatia’s Marin Cilic and Serbia’s Viktor Troicki.
Sharapova’s sponsors are equally happy about her return to tennis action next April. Racquet manufacturer Head had already extended its contract with the Russian star even as she tested positive for meldonium. On Tuesday, Head’s CEO Johan Eliasch said the company stood vindicated as justice was now served. Nike had suspended its relationship with Sharapova soon after the ban but they had added that they would stand by her after the tribunal’s findings in June. There are two others who are waiting to sign her back. They are Car manufacturer Porsche and Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer. Combined with her tremendous tennis skills, Sharapova’s glamorous looks made her the favorite of several top sponsors and she remained the highest-paid female athlete for 11 consecutive years. Later, she was overtaken by world no.1 Serena Williams. As per data collected by Forbes magazine, Sharapova’s current earnings from winnings and endorsements stand at $21.74 million compared with $28.73 million for Serena Williams. For someone, whose family didn’t have enough money to pay for her tennis academy expenses 20 years ago, Sharapova has made huge strides in converting her tennis skills into monetarily lucrative gain. And she is not through yet.