GENEVA • Maria Sharapova said she could not wait to return to tennis in April after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) reduced the former world No. 1's two-year drug ban by nine months yesterday.
Hailing it as one of the happiest days of her career, the Russian said she had learnt a lesson from the "tough months" behind her and hoped the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and anti-doping authorities had also.
"In so many ways, I feel like something I love was taken away from me and it will feel really good to have it back," the 29-year-old five-time Grand Slam champion wrote on Facebook. "Tennis is my passion and I have missed it. I am counting the days until I can return to the court."
She is expected to be back in action on April 26 as her ban was backdated to start on Jan 26 by the ITF following her positive test for the drug meldonium. That threw her glittering career - 35 Women's Tennis Association (WTA) singles titles and more than US$36 million (S$49.3 million) in career earnings - into serious jeopardy.
The arbitration panel ruled yesterday that she had committed an anti-doping rule violation for which "she bore some degree of fault".
It added that the decision to reduce the ban concerned solely "the degree of fault that can be imputed to the player for her failure to make sure that the substance contained in a product that she had been taking over a long period remained in compliance with the anti-doping rules".
Sharapova had called the ITF's original ruling "unfairly harsh" as an independent tribunal had found that she had not intentionally violated anti-doping rules.
She admitted taking meldonium for 10 years - to help treat illnesses, a heart issue and a magnesium deficiency - during the season's opening Grand Slam in Melbourne but said she had been unaware that it had been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada).
Meldonium was added to Wada's list of banned substances at the start of the year after mounting evidence that it boosted blood flow and enhanced athletic performance.
"I have learnt from this, and I hope the ITF has as well," said Sharapova, adding that she had always taken responsibility for not knowing the over-the-counter supplement she had taken for 10 years was no longer allowed.
She said other federations had been much better at notifying their athletes of the rule change, especially in Eastern Europe where meldonium was taken by millions.
"Now that this process is over, I hope the ITF and other relevant tennis anti-doping authorities will study what these other federations did, so that no other tennis player will have to go through what I went through," she added.
Steve Simon, CEO of the WTA, said he had faith in the tennis anti-doping programme (TADP).
"The TADP has a comprehensive and fair process in place and we support the final (CAS) result," Simon said. "We are pleased that the process is now at completion and can look forward to seeing Maria back on court in 2017."
Shamil Tarpishev, president of the Russian tennis federation, welcomed the reduced ban, which has seen Sharapova miss the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. "It's good, they reduced the ban", he told Russia's TASS news agency. "We want her to play for the national team and win the next Olympics for us."
Sponsor Head said justice had been served. "We eagerly await her return to competitive tennis in April 2017 and we are very proud to have stood by Maria for the right reasons throughout these difficult and testing times," CEO Johan Eliasch said in a statement.
The tennis equipment manufacturer said in a further statement: "It is wholly unfair that Maria, an upstanding individual of the highest moral and ethical conduct, was banned from playing competitive tennis while not actively engaging in any (behaviours) that could be considered cheating."
This provoked bewilderment among Twitter users with one, @EnEngin14, saying: "You're proud to defend a cheat. How very noble." Another, @JW-Davidson said: "Her ban has been reduced, guilt has been upheld. Why are you promoting drug abuse?"
Following Sharapova's announcement of her failed drug test in March, Nike, her most high-profile corporate backer, was the first to suspend their relationship.
Tag Heuer, the Swiss luxury watchmaker which has had a relationship with Sharapova since 2004, said it had stopped negotiations with the player. And Porsche, which signed a three-year-deal with Sharapova to become its first female ambassador in 2013, also said it would be suspending promotional work with the player.
Head, however, extended their deal with her in March, saying she was "a role model and woman of integrity" .
REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN