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Maria Sharapova given two year tennis ban for doping

Russian to immediately appeal 'unfairly harsh' ban

Maria Sharapova has been banned from tennis for two years.

The tennis ace tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open in January.

An independent panel convened by the International Tennis Federation announced on Wednesday afternoon that she will not return to the WTA Tour until 2018 at the earliest.

The maximum sentence would have been four years.

The tribunal found that the use of the drug was "not intentional", something Sharapova said she felt was unfairly harsh saying she would appeal.

She said: "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.

"I will immediately appeal the suspension portion of this ruling to CAS, the Court of Arbitration for Sport."

she added: "I have missed playing tennis and I have missed my amazing fans, who are the best and most loyal fans in the world. I have read your letters. I have read your social media posts and your love and support has gotten me through these tough days. I intend to stand for what I believe is right and that’s why I will fight to be back on the tennis court as soon as possible."

The 29-year-old Russian stunned the tennis world in March when she announced that she had failed a test the day she lost an Australian Open quarter-final to Serena Williams.

The Latvian-made heart disease medication had only been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list on January 1 but had been on a watch list for over a year and all national anti-doping agencies were told in October that it would be banned.

With use of meldonium widespread across eastern Europe, Sharapova's case was the most high-profile in an avalanche of positives in the first four months of the year. As of early May, WADA said there had been 288 positive samples.

But in April, the agency was forced to make an embarrassing climbdown when it admitted there was a lack of scientific certainty on how long it takes for the drug to be completely excreted.

Early suggestions that it should be out of an athlete's system within days gave way to fears it could be present in long-term users, in trace amounts, for weeks, if not months.

This led WADA to issue new guidance, directing that samples collected before March 1 below a certain concentration could be discarded, as the athlete might be able to prove they had stopped taking it in 2015.

Last month, Belarusian doubles specialist Sergey Betov, who also tested positive at the Australian Open, was cleared by the International Tennis Federation on these grounds.

This prompted some to speculate that five-time grand slam winner Sharapova could escape without punishment, which was always mistaken as both she and her lawyer John Haggerty had already admitted she had been taking it, on her doctor's advice, throughout January.

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