Maria Sharapova Claims Victory and Goes on the Offensive
With her doping suspension reduced by an appeals court, Maria Sharapova will be allowed to return to professional tennis in time for next year’s French Open. The top officials for the sport’s global governing body are unlikely to be there cheering for her.
Sharapova, who tested positive for meldonium this year after it was added to the list of banned substances, started a public attack on tennis’s leaders after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled on Tuesday that her two-year ban should be reduced to 15 months. Although the court did not clear her of a doping offense, she said she viewed the ruling as vindication, and she sharply criticized the International Tennis Federation for its handling of the case.
“I let everyone speak for a long time,” Sharapova said in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “I let everyone make assumptions and judge and say anything that they wanted to, and that’s what makes the world go round. But at the end of the day, when this is all over, I knew that I would have the final say.”
Sharapova revealed in March that she had tested positive at the Australian Open for meldonium, a drug banned as of Jan. 1. Sharapova said at the time that she was unaware of the change in the drug’s status, and she reiterated that assertion on Tuesday while faulting the tennis federation for the way it had communicated the change.
Sharapova, whose handlers argued that the ban on meldonium was apparent only with a deep examination of links in emails, compared the federation’s messaging to changing the traffic patterns at an intersection without a sign.
“The I.T.F. didn’t put up a ‘No Left Turn,’” she said. “A sign wasn’t even there; it wasn’t even behind a tree. It was complete false advertisement. It was like it was written on a second-grade piece of paper, folded up and glued to a tree.
“If there was a sign, I’d have been, like, O.K. But through this process, there were no signs. And that was something that was obviously very evident in the C.A.S. report, that there were no signs.”
The federation declined an interview request Wednesday. The group’s director of antidoping told the appeals court that he believed the group’s notifications were “reasonable.”
Sharapova disputed that.
“The delegation that the I.T.F. had with the WTA on checking what lists and emails were going out and who was actually receiving these notices — was it players, agents, their doctors — they had no system in place,” she said, adding: “That’s something that as I look to the future, I make it very clear that I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. And I will be very much involved in making sure that it doesn’t.”
Asked if the tennis federation had conceded any failure on its part, Sharapova scoffed.
“They wanted to ban me for four years; that was their way of conceding to me,” she said, citing the maximum penalty she could have received from the federation at its initial June hearing, before her violation was ruled unintentional. “I spent four days total in hearings listening to the head of the I.T.F. antidoping, Stuart Miller, giving two testimonies. I’m sitting there just shaking my head on how so many athletes and tennis players are in the hands of someone in his position. I really couldn’t believe it.
“I was really shocked how little knowledge someone like him had, in his position. When he spoke about meldonium, he didn’t know anything about it. It didn’t strike him that it was so common that maybe more notice was appropriate for Eastern European athletes.”
When reached Wednesday morning, Miller declined to respond to Sharapova’s remarks. The federation instead issued a statement.
“The I.T.F. did not try to ban Ms. Sharapova for four years, as has been claimed,” the statement said. “The I.T.F. position was that it is the Independent Tribunal’s responsibility to determine what the appropriate sanction should be.
“There has been a suggestion that the I.T.F. should have given specific notice to Eastern European athletes about the use of meldonium because it was so common and widely known. In fact, it was accepted in the hearing by Ms. Sharapova that the I.T.F. did not know about the extent to which meldonium was used by athletes from any region, or that she was using it.”
Sharapova has said that she took meldonium for 10 years because of a magnesium deficiency, dizziness and a family history of diabetes. More than 300 athletes, mostly other Eastern Europeans, have tested positive for meldonium this year.
“Then it was a question of ‘How is this banned when I knew it was legal, and for that amount of time?’” Sharapova said. “I just couldn’t fathom. And then I was like: ‘How did this happen? Something that is so common — are you sure? I mean, my grandparents take it, and millions of people in Russia.’ In the beginning, I couldn’t believe that.”
The appeals court did not conclude, as the I.T.F. had, that her initial use of meldonium had crossed a line into performance enhancement. Several other recent bans issued by the federation have also been overturned upon appeal.
“I think that makes you wonder, makes you think,” Sharapova said of the federation’s recent record in doping cases. “Six bans in a row that have been overturned: You wonder, does the I.T.F. think about it? Is that on their mind? The tribunal that they choose, that they call neutral, by no means is it neutral at all. That part of it does not make any sense.”
Sharapova said she had entrusted her longtime agent, Max Eisenbud, with monitoring changes to the list of drugs banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. In the tennis federation’s inquiry, Eisenbud said his divorce had disrupted his normal off-season ritual of examining the list while on vacation; the federation mocked his routine, asking, “Why it was necessary to take a file to the Caribbean to read by the pool?”
Sharapova said the experience had only made her relationship with Eisenbud stronger, but she also said she planned to have a doctor monitor antidoping concerns for her, including advising her on a permissible substitute for meldonium.
While her case was being considered by the appeals court, Russian hackers penetrated WADA’s athlete database and publicly revealed private medical information about international athletes. The hackers published documents showing that Serena Williams and others had received medical exemptions to use banned drugs.
The hackers said the exemptions were proof of unfairness in antidoping protocols. Antidoping officials said that the athletes had legitimate medical reasons for using the drugs and had followed the rules. Of the athletes with medical exemptions whose records were published, about a quarter are American, although that group is not necessarily a representative sample of all international athletes.
“I think everyone knows how the system works, and that didn’t show me anything except that players requested T.U.E.s and those were granted,” Sharapova said, referring to therapeutic-use exemptions. “The only thing I took notice of was the difference in numbers from certain countries compared to others and the number of T.U.E.s that each country had. But as far as anything the athletes were doing, they didn’t do anything wrong.”
Sharapova said she had kept herself occupied during her suspension with both physical challenges — yoga, distance running, spinning classes — and intellectual ones, like coursework at Harvard and a stint shadowing the N.B.A.’s commissioner, Adam Silver.
“From one point of view, it gave me this reassurance that life without tennis, or after tennis, is fine — and it’s pretty freaking amazing, too,” she said. “I’d never known what weekends felt like. Weekends are pretty cool. In a time of so much uncertainty in my life, I actually felt like I was in control of my own schedule.”
She added: “When you’re constantly playing tennis, you wonder about when you’re going to stop. In this time, I realized that I’m in control of what I do.”
Retirement had seemed like an option for Sharapova, who has struggled with injuries throughout her career, including much of the last year she played. Sharapova, who won a Wimbledon title at 17, turns 30 in April, a week before she can return to competition. She acknowledged that the travel of tennis could be a grind, saying, “I don’t miss getting on a plane to Wuhan, you know what I mean?” But she has no finish line in mind and wants to finish her career on her own terms, she said. She feels healthy and motivated.
“No matter if I’m in the middle of nowhere in Asia or walking into Arthur Ashe Stadium, it’s the greatest feeling that I have,” Sharapova said. “That’s what I miss. I miss walking out onto my stage because that’s been my stage since I was a young girl.”