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THE tennis world won't have to wait much longer - just another six months, in fact - for one of its most glamorous poster girls to return to the courts. First, the good news. Maria Sharapova can play tennis once again from April 26 next year. That's nine months earlier than expected, with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) having ruled to slash her initial two-year suspension for doping down to 15 months. The 29-year-old Russian hasn't picked up a racket since losing to Serena Williams at the Australian Open quarter-finals in January. It was at that tournament where she failed a routine drugs test, having tested positive for the banned substance meldonium.
She announced her mea culpa on her own terms some weeks later in March. She got her comeuppance soon enough. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) wanted to bar her for four years, but some suggested that such a lengthy ban would effectively end her tennis career. The five-time Grand Slam champion was eventually ordered to stay away for two years from the sport that she loves so much and made her into the global athlete and celebrity that she is today.
The drug in question is a Latvian-made supplement that is used to treat ischaemia, which is a lack of blood flow to parts of the body, particularly in cases of angina or heart failure; it also increases blood flow, which improves exercise capacity in athletes.
Sharapova claimed she had been taking it for the last 10 years, and did not know that it had been added to the World Anti-Doping Association's latest list of prohibited substances on Jan 1. It was unsurprising that her reaction to the reduced suspension was one of immense relief, although one gets the sense that she remains highly aggrieved by how the situation was handled. She wrote on her Facebook page on Wednesday: "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.
"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 have learned from this, and I hope the ITF has as well." She expressed hope that no other player will have to endure her ordeal in future.
Don't rush to pop the champagne just yet. There isn't really any reason to celebrate anything, even the fact that tennis fans will get to see the sport's infamous "scream queen" in action again earlier than expected. Sharapova's lawyer, John Haggerty, is still angry. Declaring the CAS ruling a triumph, he said: "The decision is a stunning repudiation of the ITF, and it exposes the ITF decision for what it is: pure fiction."
Is Sharapova, then, painting herself to be the victim in this entire saga? That seems to be the case. Mr Haggerty insists that his client was "forced to live with the ITF's bad judgment and faulty conclusions" for months, which also implies that there are plans to sue the federation.
Let's be clear on one thing. Ignorant or not, Sharapova is not completely absolved of responsibility or wrong-doing. The CAS ruling made the all-important distinction between "fault" (which, in their opinion, was present) and "significant fault" (which was not).
The bottom line is she consumed a banned substance and has to pay for those actions. Sharapova, the world's highest paid sportswoman who earned US$29.7 million last year, is fortunate that most of her major sponsors have stood by her throughout. Tennis racket manufacturer Head, German luxury carmarker Porsche and mineral water brand Evian all hailed the reduction of the ban. Nike, her most lucrative sponsorship, has said it will continue to partner her.
How will the women's tour react when she returns? It's common knowledge that Sharapova isn't the most popular figure in the locker room. Her peers aren't likely to throw a big "Welcome Back" party for her, that's for sure.
She will likely hit the ground running to make up for lost time, and in her comeback match that will take place just days after her 30th birthday, you can be sure she'll go all out and try to regain her place among the elite of women's tennis as soon as possible.
Her star may have faded somewhat because of the doping controversy, but the lanky Russian still remains one of the biggest names in the sport today. The women's tour has been poorer without one of its biggest stars, even though many of us will never look at her in the same light ever again.
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