When All England Club committee members sit down in eight months’ time to decide which players will receive wild cards into Wimbledon next summer, one prominent name is likely to feature in their discussions.
In most other circumstances the offer of a wild card to a former champion and world No 1 would be all but a foregone conclusion. However, will Wimbledon – or any of the other Grand Slam tournaments for that matter - want to give such support to Maria Sharapova, who remains a drugs offender despite the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision to reduce her International Tennis Federation ban from two years to 15 months?
Sharapova, who tested positive for Meldonium at this year’s Australian Open, can return to competition next April, but in order to gain direct entry into the Grand Slam events she would need to be ranked in the world’s top 104 six weeks before the start of each tournament.
The rankings are based on points accumulated during the previous 12 months, so Sharapova, who will be 30 by the time she returns, will be starting from zero. She will be hard pressed to secure enough ranking points even to secure a place in the US Open at the end of next summer.
Sharapova, who has won all four Grand Slam titles, has been one of the world’s most high-profile sportswomen for more than 10 years. With Serena Williams surely approaching the end of her career and a line of succession at the top unclear, the temptation might be to welcome back Sharapova with open arms, but the sport should be wary about how it handles the return of the 2004 Wimbledon champion.
Judged by the reactions to the CAS decision of both Sharapova and some of those around her, you might have guessed that the Russian had actually been cleared of drug-taking. Sharapova called it “one of my happiest days”, while Johan Eliasch, the chairman of her racket manufacturer and sponsor, Head, issued a statement in which he said the company would like to “congratulate” the player on the news.
Was such language appropriate given the circumstances? While the CAS ruling will have made uncomfortable reading for the ITF, which was said to have failed to give adequate warning to players that Meldonium was being added to the sport’s list of banned substances in 2016, it also made clear that Sharapova bore “some degree of fault”. Her ban for a doping violation remains in place and it is only the length of her suspension that has been changed.
Sharapova told the original ITF tribunal that she had first been prescribed Meldonium (or more specifically the trade product Mildronate) in 2006 for a number of medical issues. The drug was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list at the start of this year because of suspicions that it was being used by some athletes to enhance performance.
CAS nevertheless ruled that Sharapova could not be regarded as an “intentional doper”, on the basis that she had been prescribed the drug – before it was banned – for medical reasons. However, according to CAS she “bore some degree of fault”, having failed to supervise the work of her agent, Max Eisenbud, whom she had entrusted with ensuring that her medication was within the rules.
The secretive nature of Sharapova’s medical regime was revealed at the ITF’s hearing earlier this year, when it emerged that Eisenbud was the only member of her support team who knew she had been taking Meldonium.
Sharapova also failed to disclose that she was using the drug - even when it was not banned - when completing drug-testers’ forms. Sharapova said she thought she had to declare only those items she had taken every day in the previous seven days; at Wimbledon last summer she had used the drugs six times in the previous seven days.
The ITF tribunal said there had been a lack of medical justification for Sharapova’s use of Meldonium and concluded that she must have been taking the drug “for the purpose of enhancing her performance”.
While the CAS ruling clearly rejects that conclusion, cynics might still question Sharapova’s actions. Given that she insisted she was using Meldonium for sound medical reasons, why did she not disclose her use of it to anyone other than Eisenbud?
John Haggerty, the head of Sharapova’s legal team, said the CAS judgement was “a stunning repudiation of the ITF”. There can be no doubt that the sport’s governing body needs to take a long look at its anti-doping regime. This is the third time in the last four years that CAS has made significant reductions to drugs bans imposed on players, having cut the suspensions on Marin Cilic, who took a glucose supplement which contained a banned substance, and Viktor Troicki, who refused to take a blood test.
Both Cilic and Troicki have made successful returns to competition and nobody will be working harder on her tennis in the months ahead than Sharapova, whose dedication to her sport has always been exemplary. Nevertheless, a return to the very top will be a tall order. Some tournaments will no doubt offer support in the form of wild cards, but whether that help is forthcoming at the highest level is another matter.
However, Steve Simon, the head of the Women’s Tennis Association, expects the French Open to be among a number events which will grant her wild cards. “I would be very surprised if there are too many tournaments that wouldn’t extend her that opportunity,” he said.
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