Five-time Grand Slam tennis champion Maria Sharapova on Monday said she failed a dope test at the Australian Open and is not sure what punishment she is to face for her “huge mistake.”
The former world No. 1 from Russia said a change in the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) banned list for this year led to an inadvertent violation, for which she is to be “provisionally suspended” by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
In a sign of what the affair could mean to Sharapova’s mass of money-spinning endorsements, US sportswear maker Nike said it was “saddened and surprised” by the news.
“We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues,” a Nike statement said.
Porsche also said it would suspend its relationship with Sharapova, while TAG Heuer said it would not be renewing her contract.
Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, a drug she said she had been taking since 2006, but was only added to the banned list this year.
“I did fail the test and I take full responsibility for it,” Sharapova said at a news conference at a Los Angeles hotel. “I made a huge mistake. I let my fans down. I let my sport down that I have been playing since the age of four that I love so deeply.”
“I know that with this, I face consequences... I do not want to end my career this way and I really hope I will be given another chance to play this game,” she added.
The ITF confirmed in a statement that Sharapova had tested positive on Jan. 26 and had accepted the finding when she was notified on March 2.
“Miss Sharapova will be provisionally suspended with effect from March 12, pending determination of the case,” the ITF said.
Sharapova said she was cooperating with the ITF and did not yet know the extent of the sanctions she would face.
Her attorney, John Haggerty, said the positive test could carry a ban of up to four years, but that mitigating circumstances could see a lesser penalty.
Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpishchev told the TASS news agency he believed Sharapova would still have a chance to play at the Rio Olympics in August.
Sharapova, 28, burst onto the international scene as she giggled and grunted her way to the Wimbledon crown in 2004.
She won the US Open in 2006, the Australian Open in 2008 and the French Open in 2012 and 2014.
Her ferocity on the court, business acumen and glamorous looks have all combined to make her a marketing juggernaut and the overseer of such successful ventures as her Sugarpova line of candy.
She has 35 WTA singles titles, more than US$36 million in career earnings and is currently ranked seventh in the world.
“I am very saddened to hear this news about Maria,” WTA chief executive Steve Simon 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.”
Australian tennis officials said they were surprised that Sharapova tested positive in Melbourne.
“Throughout her career, Maria has always impressed with her professionalism as a leader and role-model in our sport,” Tennis Australia said in a statement, adding that she had said she is prepared to “face the consequences” of the result.
Sharapova said she originally began taking meldonium for a variety of symptoms, including a tendency to become ill often, an irregular electrocardiogram test and a family history of diabetes.
Meldonium is used to treat heart trouble, including angina and heart failure.
In adding it to the banned list, WADA said there was evidence it has been used by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance.
A string of sports figures have tested positive for it this year, including Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova, Ukrainian biathletes Artem Tyshchenko and Olga Abramova, and Ethiopian-born Swede Abebe Aregawi, the 2013 women’s 1500m world champion.
Sharapova has struggled with injuries during her career and has played just three tournaments since Wimbledon last year.
She pulled out of last year’s US Open with a leg injury and withdrew from the tournament starting this week in Indian Wells, California, with a left forearm injury.
Her most recent match was her Australian Open quarter-final loss to longtime rival Serena Williams.
Monday’s short-notice news conference promising a “major announcement” had sparked speculation that Sharapova might be preparing to announce her retirement.
“If I was ever going to announce my retirement, it would probably not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet,” she said in a half-hearted attempt to lighten things up.
Otherwise, she was somber.
“I have to take full responsibility for it,” Sharapova said. “At the end of day, everything you do is about you.”
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