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International Tennis Federation swings back after 'biased' blast from Maria Sharapova

By Robert Jones

The International Tennis Federation has rejected Maria Sharapova's claim that the hearing into her doping violation was "not neutral".

The 29-year-old former Wimbledon champion tested positive for the heart drug Meldonium in January and was then sanctioned by the ITF in June.

On Tuesday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport announced a reduction in the five-time Grand Slam winner's doping ban, from two years to 15 months.

Sharapova's lawyer John Haggerty described the CAS ruling as a "stunning repudiation of the ITF", while the former World No.1 said she was "counting the days until I can return to the court".

She is expected to make her comeback in early May. In her first television interview since the CAS ruling, Russian Sharapova was again critical of the ITF, saying she is "starting to think" the sports governing body tried to make an example of her.

"I got a 24-month suspension, but they (the ITF) wanted four years," Sharapova said. "I went through the ITF hearing, in front of an arbitration (panel) which was chosen by the ITF.

"I am at a hearing (in London) knowing the people I am speaking to were chosen by the people that I am actually in a fight with.

"They call that neutral? That is not neutral. CAS is neutral and this is what CAS has awarded."

Asked if she thought the ITF was trying to make an example of her, Sharapova said: "I never wanted to believe that, but I am starting to think that."

In a statement the ITF defended its position.

"The ITF did not 'try to ban Ms Sharapova for four years'. The ITF took the position that it is the independent tribunal's responsibility to determine what the appropriate sanction should be," the statement read.

"This included the decision as to whether Ms Sharapova met the requirements set out in the tennis anti-doping programme - which are the same as those in the WADA code - for a reduction from the default four-year suspension for the use of a non-specified substance such as Meldonium.

"The members of the independent tribunal, which consisted of a barrister as chairman and medical and scientific experts as co-members, are appointed by the ITF. However, Ms Sharapova's legal team was given the opportunity to object to any member of that tribunal, and they agreed in writing that they had no such objection."

The result from CAS is a partial victory for the world's highest-earning female athlete and also a setback for the ITF and the World Anti-Doping Agency.

The three-man panel of CAS experts said it did "not agree with many of the conclusions of the (ITF) tribunal" and the federation has already seen the court reduce recent doping bans for Marin Cilic and Viktor Troicki. The ITF was also criticised by the panel for not properly informing players of changes to WADA's banned list.

Sharapova's lawyers had asked for an immediate reinstatement, but the nine-month reduction is the most they could have expected as she did not meet all the criteria for a "no significant fault" reduction of 50 per cent.

Meldonium was added to WADA's banned substances list on January 1, and athletes and their entourages were warned several times by email that it was about to be prohibited - emails Sharapova did not read.

Reflecting on the case, Sharapova said: "When I first started taking it I took it under my doctor's orders and that's how I kept taking it for years. I became comfortable with the fact that it was natural for me to take something that was completely legal.

"I was getting laboratory reports from Moscow and confirmation that it was legal."

When she returns to competitive tennis, Sharapova may need to rapidly accumulate ranking points to qualify for the French Open and Wimbledon, unless she is handed wildcards.

A spokesman for the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club said: "The decision on wildcards for the Championships 2017 will take place according to the usual protocols and be announced from June 21."

Meanwhile, top seed Andy Murray set up an all-British quarter-final against Kyle Edmund at the China Open after he saw off Andrey Kuznetsov 6-2 6-1 in Beijing, where there was also progress for Johanna Konta in the women's singles.

World No.2 Murray continued his return to action since suffering a thigh injury playing for Great Britain in the Davis Cup with another composed display.

Earlier, British No.2 Edmund beat Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut in three sets.

The 21-year-old, who provisionally moved into the top 50 after beating Guiilermo Garcia-Lopez in the first round in China, claimed a 6-4 4-6 6-4 victory against the World No.18.

Konta, meanwhile, beat Timea Babos 7-5 6-2.

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