Maria Sharapova will not be at Wimbledon this month, nor will she be at peace with herself for a little while yet, because the battle the Russian has chosen to join in pursuit of clearing her name as a drug cheat will drag on well into the summer.
Her lawyer, John Haggerty, reiterated to the Guardian on Thursday night that he was confident they had enough “wriggle room” to put a strong case for acquittal or a reduction of her two-year ban to the court of arbitration for sport (Cas) in Switzerland, which he estimates is not expected to sit before the end of next month.
That would, of course, rule out her attendance at Wimbledon, which starts on 27 June, even though she is a lifetime guest and member, having won the title in 2004 – because, as a tournament source said: “She would be not be allowed on site because the conditions of a ban forbids access to a tournament venue.”
Haggerty accepted that, and said his client’s focus is on her appeal, adding: “I’m a little disappointed the International Tennis Federation’s tribunal [which sat for two days in London last month] did not take into account some of the evidence we presented.”
He focused on four paragraphs of its findings, but mainly No63, centring on her admission she took the drug Mildronate (meldonium) – legal until banned on 1 January – for 10 years, but for a time alongside two others she did not declare, magnerot and roboxin. “All of them were legal,” Haggerty said, “and she did not have to declare them. But she was not hiding anything by so doing.”
However, while one jury has convicted Sharapova on the evidence provided by her own admission and further examination of the five matches she played at the Australian Open in January, another set of adjudicators – the amorphous corporate beast whose money has made her the richest woman in sport, and clings tenuously to an ill-defined morality – is divided still on the Russian’s guilt.
After her two-year banishment was announced on Wednesday afternoon – this time by the ITF, instead of the player herself, who stole its thunder with her televised confession in March – Sharapova’s seven high-end financial backers delivered their in-out verdicts like this on Thursday.
IN: Nike, back in the fold after dumping her in March, when she confessed to failing a drug test after losing to Serena Williams in the quarter-final of the Australian Open in January; her racket provider, Head, which has remained faithful throughout, to the displeasure of its other star client, Andy Murray; her long-time water sponsor, Evian; and Supergoo, a skincare company, which will support her through to the appeal, and make a definitive call then.
OUT: Porsche, which drove into the sunset when she confessed, is keeping its options open until the result of her appeal to the court of arbitration for sport; the cosmetic giant Avon, which fudged its call by saying its deal was “set to expire”; Tag Heuer, taking Swiss neutrality to its logical conclusion, has not renewed its long-running contract, which expired last year, but is keeping its options open.
The World Anti-Doping Agency, which prosecuted the case against her, is still reviewing the judgment and has yet to decide whether or not to appeal against the length of the ban. “We have 21 days to decide whether or not we want to appeal to Cas, either after we have received the full case decision or after any other party has appealed, the later of those two scenarios,” the Wada spokesman Ben Nichols said. “We can appeal the decision given by the organisation, in this case the ITF, or we can cross-appeal if an athlete makes an appeal and we don’t agree with that line of thinking.”
He added: “That’s where we are, and we don’t have an affirmative on which way we’ll go. We look at these cases as a matter of course and then we take a position.” All of which gives the impression of a cessation of hostilities while all sides rearm.
Meanwhile, fans remain confused by a verdict that on the one hand declared Sharapova was guilty but, on the other, not intentionally so – allowing the handing down of a two-year rather than a four-year sentence, on a procedural technicality. It gave the impression, however, that the three-person panel had lost its collective nerve.
The mixed message – a probationary order rather than a life sentence – gave the player heart as well. She struck a combative pose when she said: “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.” At the Cas appeal she will choose one of the three arbitrators, with the ITF selecting another, and the third neutral. “And that gives us cause to be confident, too,” Haggerty said.
How will they call it? History suggests they will be kind to her. In 2013, they cut Viktor Troicki’s ban for refusing to submit a blood sample from 18 months to a year; and Marin Cilic had a nine-month suspension for unknowingly ingesting a banned stimulant reduced to only four months. Sharapova has tumbled in the rankings from nine to 26, irrelevant in practical terms while she is out of the game, but symbolically significant for her at 29 and with only a slim chance of returning to the game before the 2018 French Open.
And, when this lousy war is over, she might reflect on a curiosity largely overlooked in all of this: she could beat Serena Williams when “clean” of meldonium – for that Wimbledon title as a 17-year-old teenager – but not in the subsequent 19 matches when she was using it, including the quarter-final in Melbourne that might yet prove to be her final appearance on a tennis court.
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