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Maria Sharapova drug test failure: Tennis star feels heat as cost adds up

Burning questions grow after big-money sponsors pull plug

By Paul Newman

The number of questions Maria Sharapova will have to answer following her failed drugs test was growing last night as some of the Russian's biggest sponsors distanced themselves from a player who 24 hours earlier had been the most marketable woman in world sport.

Nike and Porsche suspended their deals with the former World No.1, who admitted on Monday that she had tested positive for Meldonium, a drug which she said she had taken on medical advice for 10 years.

Sharapova accepted full responsibility for failing to read a notice sent to her in December by the World Anti-Doping Agency, which added the drug to its banned list this year because of fears that it was being used to enhance performances.

When an ITF tribunal hears Sharapova's case it will want to know whether the former Wimbledon champion disclosed at doping controls that she was taking the drug, as players are required to do. Sharapova said she had been prescribed the drug in 2006 after being diagnosed with early signs of diabetes, heart irregularities and a magnesium deficiency.

The tribunal will also be keen to hear how regularly Sharapova had taken the drug, especially as the Latvian manufacturers said yesterday that it was normally prescribed for periods of just four to six weeks, though the treatment can be repeated two or three times a year.

The drug is not licensed in the United States, where Sharapova lives.

Sharapova, who faces a two-year ban, is the latest in a growing line of athletes, particularly from Russia, who have tested positive for Meldonium.

One study was said to have found traces of the drug in 17 per cent of more than 4,000 samples taken from Russian athletes last year. Another study is said to have found it in 2.2 per cent of random urine samples taken from professional athletes.

Nick Wojek, head of science and medicine at UK Anti-Doping, said: "It's not a drug used in western Europe and America as a therapeutic drug, so you'd think that's a very high percentage (2.2 per cent). I think it would infer...that there would be some misuse within that number."

It also emerged last night that Meldonium was regularly given to Soviet troops to increase their stamina and deal with oxygen deprivation when they fought in the mountains of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Nike, which in 2010 agreed an eight-year contract with Sharapova worth more than £49m in the biggest sponsorship deal ever given to a woman athlete, said in suspending its ties with her that it was "saddened and surprised".

Of her other sponsors, Porsche expressed "regret" in suspending its deal, Tag Heuer said it would not seek to renew its contract and Evian said it would monitor developments.

There was a distinct lack of support for Sharapova among her fellow players.

Ex World No.1 Caroline Wozniacki - former fiancee of Ulster golfing superstar Rory McIlroy - urged athletes to take all necessary precautions following Sharapova's suspension.

Speaking at a press conference in New York, the Danish tennis star said athletes should be extra careful to check their medications.

"Any time we take any medication I think we double and triple and quadruple check because sometimes even things like cough drops and nasal sprays can be on the list," she said.

"So I think as athletes we always make sure to really make sure there is nothing in it that could put us in a bad situation."

While Serena Williams - a friend of Wozniacki - said that Sharapova had been "very honest" and showed "a lot of courage", one of her predecessors as World No.1, Jennifer Capriati, said she was "extremely angry and disappointed".

Capriati said that she had "never opted to cheat no matter what" and had not had the "high-priced team of (doctors) that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system".

Williams and Sharapova have endured a testy relationship at the top of the sport.

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