NEW YORK – Quick thoughts on the ITF's ruling on Maria Sharapova's doping case on Wednesday, plus a round-up of important notes from the document. Sharapova has received a two-year ban for her violation, backdated to January 2016.
• I am moderately surprised by the ITF's decision. The fact that the consumption seems to come after January 1st meant that getting off with no penalty was going to be virtually impossible. This wasn’t like some of the cases that resulted in exoneration. A ban of two years or under still implies unintentional use.
Sharapova can—and we suspect she will—claim that, like she said in her press conference in March, that she is guilty of usage but not intent to enhance performance, and that this was all unintentional. The ITF's two-year penalty supports that statement.
Having said all of that—two years sounds very severe. And Sharapova’s age is not something that can be considered. Her response or sort of self reporting, however, can be.
• Let's pause a second to explain a bit of the decision process for this case. It’s a strict liability standard, which basically says that it’s on you. Whether it is intentional or not, or it's tainted supplements or something else, whatever your alibi may be, you’re subject to penalty if you fail an anti-doping test.
So it was going to be very unlikely for her to get away with no penalty. Then, I think it just comes down to questions of intent and two years suggests that the hearing officers did not believe she purposely was trying to enhance performance.
• The ITF said the independent tribunal who heard her case on May 18 and 19 determined her suspension should be backdated to the date of her sample collection in January 2016 because of her “prompt admission of her violation.” Thus, Sharapova's two-year suspension—if it stands—will end January 25, 2018. This has obvious implications on her participation in the majors but it also has an impact on tennis in general.
A generation ago, we would’ve said: C’mon, she’s going to be in her early 30s and she’s not going to have played for two years? This is a career buster.
But now, we don’t think that way. Serena Williams is almost 35 years old and she came within a match of winning the most recent major at the French Open.
For Sharapova, the time off may be a disguised blessing. She will have motivation when she comes back. She has the means to stay in shape. This, of course, is all presupposing this doesn’t change on appeal, I still don’t think we’ve seen the last of Maria Sharapova. I don’t think she is going to retire. I don’t think she wants to go out this way. At 31 years old, with two years of rest and two years of less wear-and-tear on her body, Sharapova has a real chance to return to tennis—this suspension is not life sentence.
• The other part of the ITF's ruling on Wednesday is the possibility of an appeal. Sharapova has already stated in a post on her Facebook page that she will begin the process immediately:
“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."
If this two-year suspension stands, then it’s going to be very tough for her to litigate out of this. Once she has existed her CAS appeal, her odds of reducing the ban go way down.
WTA releases statement
On Wednesday, the WTA also released a statement on Sharapova’s appeal. Steve Simon, WTA CEO:
“It is important at all times for players to be aware of the rules and to follow them. In this case, Maria has taken responsibility for her mistake from the outset. The WTA supports the process that the ITF and Maria have followed. The ITF has made its ruling and, under the Tennis Anti-Doping Program, the decision may be appealed to the Court Arbitration for Sport. The WTA will continue to follow this closely and we hope it will be resolved as soon as possible."