Nike freezes ties with Sharapova
RUSSIAN tennis star Maria Sharapova said on Monday she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open due to a substance she was taking for health issues, leading long-time sponsor Nike to announce it was suspending ties during the investigation.
The 28-year-old, a five-time Grand Slam champion and the highest paid woman in sports, will be provisionally suspended starting from Saturday, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) said.
She is the seventh athlete in a month to test positive for meldonium, which is used to treat diabetes and low magnesium.
It was only banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) as of Jan 1.
"I made a huge mistake. I let my fans down and I let the sport down," said Sharapova, a teenage tennis prodigy who became the third-youngest Wimbledon champion.
"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 former world No. 1 told a news conference in a downtown Los Angeles hotel.
Nike, the world's largest sportswear maker, said it was "saddened and surprised" by the news and released a statement saying it was putting ties on hold with the player.
"We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues," it said.
The ITF's anti-doping programme 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 Jan 1, the rules have changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance."
Wada declined to comment until ITF issues 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, Latvia and other countries in that region.
Sharapova, who has struggled with a series of injuries in recent years, has not competed since she lost to Serena Williams in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open in January.
Renowned for her never-say-die approach, a gritty baseline game and high-decibel shrieking, Sharapova at 17 became the first Russian woman to win Wimbledon when she beat Williams in the 2004 final.
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.