Maria Sharapova has been suspended for two years by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) after testing positive for banned drug meldonium, which may end the career of the world's richest female athlete of the past decade.
The ITF made the announcement Wednesday, ending weeks of speculation about the future of Sharapova. Sharapova -- whose case was heard by a three-person tribunal on May 18 and 19 -- immediately said on her Facebook page she would appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which will have the final say on the matter.
The ITF and World Anti-Doping Agency can also appeal the verdict to CAS -- Sharapova, in the Facebook post, added that the ITF sought a four-year ban.
"The ITF tribunal unanimously concluded that what I did was not intentional," the 29-year-old Sharapova said. "The tribunal found that I did not seek treatment from my doctor for the purpose of obtaining a performance enhancing substance. 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."
WTA head Steve Simon, replying to the verdict, emphasized the importance of players to follow the rules.
"It is important at all times for players to be aware of the rules and to follow them," Simon said. "In this case, Maria has taken responsibility for her mistake from the outset. The WTA supports the process that the ITF and Maria have followed. The ITF has made its ruling and, under the Tennis Anti-Doping Program, the decision may be appealed to the Court Arbitration for Sport.
"The WTA will continue to follow this closely and we hope it will be resolved as soon as possible."
Sharapova stunned the world in March when the five-time grand slam winner said in a Los Angeles press conference arranged by her entourage that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open on January 26. She received a provisional ban on March 12.
Sharapova claimed she had been taking meldonium since 2006 for heart issues, a magnesium deficiency and because her family has a history of diabetes.
Sharapova, who has continued to promote her candy company Sugarpova since being suspended, said she simply failed to read an email that stated meldonium would be added to the banned list on Jan. 1. It was an oversight, she said, adding that she knew the drug by its trade name Mildronate.
Meldonium isn't approved for use in the U.S. -- where Sharapova has lived since the age of seven -- by the Food and Drug Administration.
It was added to the prohibited list "because of evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance," WADA said on its website.
Boosting endurance and helping in the recovery process are potential benefits for athletes.
The Partnership for Clean Competition -- which includes the NFL, MLB, U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Anti-Doping -- said on its website last October that 182 or 2.2% of 8,300 urine samples collected from athletes contained Mildronate, which was then still legal.
"From an anti-doping perspective, the 2.2% rate in this study was concerning," said Dr. Larry Bowers, chairperson of the PCC Scientific Board. "This figure represents more than twice the overall rate of laboratory findings for a single drug than any of the substances on the Prohibited List."
Sharapova gets 2-year ban
My guess is that she'll now retire from professional tennis. Coming back at age 31 in a sport dominated by younger women will be nearly impossible. This is a huge loss for the game of tennis altogether. She just may be its biggest star.