LAUSANNE (AFP) - Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova hailed the reduction of her two-year doping ban on Tuesday (Oct 4) as one of the "happiest days" of her life, immediately targeting a return to action in April 2017.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) cut Sharapova's ban to 15 months saying she was not an "intentional doper", after the 29-year-old tested positive for the banned medication meldonium during January's Australian Open - throwing her glittering, money-spinning career into serious jeopardy.
"I've gone from one of the toughest days of my career last March, when I learned about my suspension, to now, one of my happiest days, as I found out I can return to tennis in April," said Sharapova, who has racked up 35 WTA singles titles and more than US$36 million (S$49 million) in career earnings.
An April return - the ban is backdated to the positive test in January this year - means she would in theory be able to compete at the French Open in May to June next year.
Sharapova, whose ferocity on court, business acumen and glamorous looks have all combined to make her a marketing juggernaut, was hit with a two-year ban by an independent tribunal appointed by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
Reducing the ban after she appealled, the Lausanne-based CAS "found that Ms Sharapova committed an anti-doping rule violation and that while it was with 'no significant fault', she bore some degree of fault, for which a sanction of 15 months is appropriate".
In the panel's more detailed, formal decision, it said significantly: "Under no circumstances... can the player be considered to be an 'intentional doper'." Sharapova openly admitted she had been taking meldonium for 10 years to help treat illnesses, a heart issue and a magnesium deficiency.
She always maintained that it had entirely escaped her attention that the product had been added to the banned substance list published by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) on Jan 1, just before the Australian Open.
"I have taken responsibility from the very beginning for not knowing that the over-the-counter supplement I had been taking for the last 10 years was no longer allowed," Sharapova said in her Facebook post Tuesday, before going on to hit out at the ITF.
"But I also learned how much better other (sports) Federations were at notifying their athletes of the rule change, especially in Eastern Europe, where Mildronate (the trade name of meldonium) is commonly taken by millions of people." Sharapova added:
"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." Sharapova, who off the court has enjoyed successful ventures such as her "Sugarpova" line of candy and whose sponsors include Nike, helping her amass a fortune estimated at US$200 million, said she was itching to get back on court.
"I'm coming back soon and I can't wait!" she said.
"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.
"Tennis is my passion and I have missed it. I am counting the days until I can return to the court."
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told TASS news agency: "I'm very happy for Maria, although I think that CAS should have fully lifted her suspension for a drug like meldonium." Sharapova was intially prescribed meldonium a year after winning Wimbledon as a 17-year-old by a Russian doctor in Moscow to boost her immune system.
She burst onto the tennis scene by stealing hearts and winning that title at Wimbledon in 2004 before going on to clinch the US Open in 2006, the Australian Open in 2008 and the French Open in 2012 and 2014.
Nike, which had initially suspended its relationship with the Russian, has said it would stick by Sharapova and her tennis racquet manufacturer and another sponsor, Head, congratulated her on Tuesday.
"We are very proud to have stood by Maria for the right reasons throughout these difficult and testing times," said Head chairman Johan Eliasch.
Alexander Zhukov, president of Russia's Olympic Committee, said that he hopes Sharapova will be able to compete at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, after missing out on the August Rio Games due to her suspension.