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Maria Sharapova may find she won't be welcomed back by all

By Paul Newman

Published 05/10/2016

Towering achievement:Maria Sharapova shows off the trophy after her second win at the French Open in Paris
Towering achievement:Maria Sharapova shows off the trophy after her second win at the French Open in Paris
Maria Sharapova is looking to win another Grand Slam
Huge error: Maria Sharapova, who could be banned for two years, announces that she didn't realise Meldonium is prohibited
Maria Sharapova says she accepts that she has failed a drugs test
Maria Sharapova of Russia serves in her third round match against Lauren Davis
Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova
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Maria Sharapova
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Johanna Konta in action against Maria Sharapova during day one of the Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday June 29, 2015. See PA Story TENNIS Wimbledon. Photo credit should read Jonathan Brady/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. No commercial use without prior written consent of the AELTC. Still image use only - no moving images to emulate broadcast. No superimposing or removal of sponsor/ad logos. Call +44 (0)1158 447447 for further information.
Maria Sharapova in action against Johanna Konta during the First round women's singles during day one of the Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday June 29, 2015. See PA Story TENNIS Wimbledon. Photo credit should read Jonathan Brady/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. No commercial use without prior written consent of the AELTC. Still image use only - no moving images to emulate broadcast. No superimposing or removal of sponsor/ad logos. Call +44 (0)1158 447447 for further information.
Russia's Maria Sharapova reacts after winning her women's singles first round match against Britain's Johanna Kontaduring on day one of the 2015 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on June 29, 2015. Sharapova won 6-2, 6-2. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE -- AFP PHOTO / GLYN KIRKGLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images
Russia's Maria Sharapova (L) shakes hands with Britain's Johanna Konta after winning their women's singles first round match on day one of the 2015 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on June 29, 2015. Sharapova won 6-2, 6-2. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE -- AFP PHOTO / GLYN KIRKGLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images
Britain's Johanna Konta serves to Russia's Maria Sharapova during their women's singles first round match on day one of the 2015 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on June 29, 2015. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE -- AFP PHOTO / GLYN KIRKGLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 29: Johanna Konta of Great Britain serves in her Ladiess Singles first round match against Maria Sharapova of Russia during day one of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 29, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 29: Maria Sharapova of Russia plays a forehand in her Ladiess Singles first round match against Johanna Konta of Great Britain during day one of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 29, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Maria Sharapova serves in her Ladies Singles first round match against Johanna Konta (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Russia's Maria Sharapova serves to Britain's Johanna Konta during their women's singles first round match on day one of the 2015 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on June 29, 2015. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE -- AFP PHOTO / GLYN KIRKGLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images
Russia's Maria Sharapova returns to Britain's Johanna Konta during their women's singles first round match on day one of the 2015 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, southwest London, on June 29, 2015. Sharapova won 6-2, 6-2. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE -- AFP PHOTO / GLYN KIRKGLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images
Maria Sharapova in action Johanna Konta during day one of the Wimbledon Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Wimbledon. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday June 29, 2015. See PA Story TENNIS Wimbledon. Photo credit should read Jonathan Brady/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. No commercial use without prior written consent of the AELTC. Still image use only - no moving images to emulate broadcast. No superimposing or removal of sponsor/ad logos. Call +44 (0)1158 447447 for further information.
Maria Sharapova of Russia serves in her Ladies Singles first round match against Johanna Konta of Great Britain during day one of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on June 29, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
On song: Jo Konta is ready to face Maria Sharapova
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Maria Sharapova
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Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates winning against Caria Suarez Navarro of the Spain during day five of the China Open at the China National Tennis Center on October 1, 2014 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Emmanuel Wong/Getty Images)
Caroline Wozniacki
Maria Sharapova
Maria Sharapova
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HSBC is the main sponsor of Wimbledon, where Maria Sharapova plays her first match today
Maria Sharapova is picked up by racing driver Mark Webber and driven to the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) pre-Wimbledon party
Maria Sharapova is picked up by racing driver Mark Webber and driven to the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) Pre-Wimbledon Party
Maria Sharapova
Open race: Maria Sharapova celebrates winning her women's singles semi-final match against Eugenie Bouchard at the French Open
Sealed with a kiss: Maria Sharapova celebrates her win yesterday
Maria Sharapova of Russia serves during her women's singles match against Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria on day four of the French Open at Roland Garros on May 28, 2014 in Paris, France. (Photo by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
Maria Sharapova of Russia hits a backhand during the final against Ana Ivanovic of Serbia on day seven of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix 2014 at Porsche-Arena on April 27, 2014 in Stuttgart, Germany. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Maria Sharapova of Russia celebrates victory in the final against Ana Ivanovic of Serbia on day seven of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix 2014 at Porsche-Arena on April 27, 2014 in Stuttgart, Germany. (Photo by Adam Pretty/Bongarts/Getty Images)

When All England Club committee members sit down in eight months' time to decide which players will receive wildcards into Wimbledon next summer, one prominent name is likely to feature in their discussions.

In most other circumstances the offer of a wildcard to a former champion and World No.1 would be all but a foregone conclusion.

However, will Wimbledon - or any of the other Grand Slam tournaments for that matter - want to give such support to Maria Sharapova, who remains a drugs offender despite the Court of Arbitration for Sport's decision to reduce her International Tennis Federation ban from two years to 15 months?

Sharapova, who tested positive for Meldonium at this year's Australian Open, can return to competition next April, but in order to gain direct entry into the Grand Slam events she would need to be ranked in the world's top 104 six weeks before the start of each tournament.

The rankings are based on points accumulated during the previous 12 months, so Sharapova, who will be 30 by the time she returns, will be starting from zero. She will be hard pressed to secure enough ranking points even to secure a place in the US Open at the end of next summer.

Sharapova, who has won all four Grand Slam titles, has been one of the world's most high-profile sportswomen for more than 10 years.

With Serena Williams surely approaching the end of her career and a line of succession at the top unclear, the temptation might be to welcome back Sharapova with open arms, but the sport should be wary about how it handles the return of the 2004 Wimbledon champion.

Judged by the reactions to the CAS decision of both Sharapova, and some of those around her, you might have guessed that the Russian had actually been cleared of drug-taking. Sharapova called it "one of my happiest days", while Johan Eliasch, the chairman of her racket manufacturer and sponsor, Head, issued a statement in which he said the company would like to "congratulate" the player on the news.

Was such language appropriate given the circumstances? While the CAS ruling will have made uncomfortable reading for the ITF, which was said to have failed to give adequate warning to players that Meldonium was being added to the sport's list of banned substances in 2016, it also made clear that Sharapova bore "some degree of fault".

Her ban for a doping violation remains in place and it is only the length of her suspension that has been changed.

Sharapova told the original ITF tribunal that she had first been prescribed Meldonium (or more specifically the trade product Mildronate) in 2006 for a number of medical issues.

The drug was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list at the start of this year because of suspicions that it was being used by some athletes to enhance performance.

CAS nevertheless ruled that Sharapova could not be regarded as an "intentional doper" on the basis that she had been prescribed the drug - before it was banned - for medical reasons.

However, according to CAS, she "bore some degree of fault", having failed to supervise the work of her agent, Max Eisenbud, whom she had entrusted with ensuring that her medication was within the rules.

The secretive nature of Sharapova's medical regime was revealed at the ITF's hearing earlier this year when it emerged that Eisenbud was the only member of her support team who knew she had been taking Meldonium.

Sharapova also failed to disclose that she was using the drug - even when it was not banned - when completing drug-testers' forms. Sharapova said she thought she had to declare only those items she had taken every day in the previous seven days; at Wimbledon last summer she had used the drugs six times in seven days.

The ITF tribunal said there had been a lack of medical justification for Sharapova's use of Meldonium and concluded that she must have been taking the drug "for the purpose of enhancing her performance".

While the CAS ruling clearly rejects that conclusion, cynics might still question Sharapova's actions. Given that she insisted she was using Meldonium for sound medical reasons, why did she not disclose her use of it to anyone other than Eisenbud?

John Haggerty, the head of Sharapova's legal team, said the CAS judgment was "a stunning repudiation of the ITF". There can be no doubt that the sport's governing body needs to take a long look at its anti-doping regime.

Tough road back: Maria Sharapova will have to rely on wildcards to enter big tournaments after her return from a doping ban — although these may not be forthcoming
Tough road back: Maria Sharapova will have to rely on wildcards to enter big tournaments after her return from a doping ban — although these may not be forthcoming

This is the third time in four years that CAS has made significant reductions to drugs bans on players having cut the suspensions on Marin Cilic, who took a glucose supplement which contained a banned substance, and Viktor Troicki, who refused to take a blood test.

Both Cilic and Troicki have made successful returns, and nobody will be working harder on her tennis in the months ahead than Sharapova, whose dedication to her sport has always been exemplary.

Nevertheless, a return to the very top will be a tall order. Some events will no doubt offer wildcards, but whether that help is forthcoming at the highest level is another matter.

Belfast Telegraph

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