Tennis superstar Maria Sharapova is fighting to save her career and reputation after failing a drug test at the Australian Open in January.
The highest-paid sportswoman in the world faces a ban of up to four years and has already had her multi-million-dollar sponsorship with Nike suspended after admitting to testing positive to a substance she’s been taking for a decade for health issues.
The five-time grand slam champion and former world No.1 is hoping for leniency but will be provisionally suspended from March 12, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) said.
Sharapova is the seventh athlete in a month to test positive for meldonium, a drug used to treat diabetes and low magnesium and only banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) as of January 1.
“I made a huge mistake. I let my fans down and I let the sport down,” the 28-year-old Russian told a news conference in Los Angeles.
“I take full responsibility for it.
“I know that with this I face consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way. I really hope that I will be given another chance to play this game.”
The ITF’s anti-doping program calls for a four-year suspension for a positive test, but that ban can be reduced in various circumstances, such as for first-time offences or if the player shows no significant fault or negligence. If a player bears no fault or negligence, there is no suspension.
Sharapova said her family doctor had been giving her mildronate, which is also called meldonium, for 10 years after she frequently became sick, had irregular EKG results, a magnesium deficiency and a family history of diabetes.
“It is very important for you to understand that for 10 years this medicine was not on WADA’s banned list and I had been legally taking the medicine. But on January the first, the rules have changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance,” she said.
WADA declined to comment until the ITF issued a final decision.
Meldonium is used to treat chest pain and heart attacks among other conditions, but some researchers have linked it to increased athletic performance and endurance. It is listed by WADA among its prohibited metabolic modulators, along with insulin, and some researchers say it can also help recovery.
It is not approved in the United States but is available in Russia.
Over the past month, Russian cyclist Eduard Vorganov, Russian figure skater Ekaterina Bobrova, Ethiopia-born athletes Endeshaw Negesse and Abeba Aregawi and Ukraine biathletes Olga Abramova and Artem Tyshchenko have all tested positive for meldonium.
Sharapova is the most prominent tennis player to test positive for a banned substance in recent years.
Croatia’s Marin Cilic was banned for nine months in 2013 after testing positive for a prohibited stimulant, though the suspension was cut to four months on appeal.
Swiss former world No.1 Martina Hingis retired after receiving a two-year suspension for a positive cocaine test in 2007.
One of the most popular figures in global sports, Sharapova has long been a favourite with her sponsors, with Forbes estimating her 2015 earnings to be $US29.5 million ($A39.47 million), mostly from endorsements.
Nike, the world’s largest footwear maker, has suspended its sponsorship until the investigation is completed after being “surprised and saddened” by Sharapova’s shock revelation.
Women’s Tennis Association boss Steve Simon was also saddened to hear the news.
“Maria is a leader and I have always known her to be a woman of great integrity,” he said.
“Nevertheless, as Maria acknowledged, it is every player’s responsibility to know what they put in their body and to know if it is permissible. The WTA will support the decisions reached through this process.”
Sharapova, who has struggled with a series of injuries in recent years, has not competed since losing to Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarter-finals on Australia Day, the day she returned her positive test.