Maria Sharapova has been banned from tennis for two years for taking a performance-enhancing drug.
An independent panel for the International Tennis Federation announced its decision Wednesday. Sharapova’s cooperation and immediate admission of wrongdoing were taken into account; the suspension was backdated to Jan. 26 and was abbreviated from a recommended four years to two.
Sharapova, a Nike athlete and spokesperson for Tag Heuer and Porsche, will also be retroactively disqualified from the 2016 Australian Open and must return any winnings earned during the tournament, which was played in January — during which she had violated the ITF doping policy.
In March, Sharapova received a letter from the ITF saying she had tested positive for a newly banned substance called meldonium. Sharapova said she’d been taking the medication since 2006 for several health issues. The substance has been legal for the past 10 years until it was added to a banned list effective Jan. 1, 2016 — information Sharapova says she was unaware of in March and when she was playing in the Australian Open.
The superstar isn’t happy with the decision, however. In a lengthy statement posted to her Facebook account, Sharapova called the ban “unfairly harsh” and said she was going to immediately appeal.
“The tribunal, whose members were selected by the [International Tennis Federation], agreed that I did not do anything intentionally wrong, yet they seek to keep me from playing tennis for two years,” Sharapova said. “I intend to stand for what I believe is right, and that’s why I will fight to be back on the tennis court as soon as possible.”
It’s been a rocky few years for the tennis superstar. Despite major endorsement deals and high-profile appearances on the fashion circuit, Sharapova’s performance on the court hasn’t been what it once was. Since 2010, Sharapova has been fighting injuries and is currently ranked ninth in the world.
The 29-year-old Russian player rose to prominence after winning Wimbledon in 2004 at age 17, defeating one of her key on-court rivals, Serena Williams. Besides her career Grand Slam, Sharapova also won a silver medal during the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Experts have wondered how damaging a suspension would affect her career and what it would mean for her high-profile sponsorships.
Just days after announcing the violation, Nike distanced itself from Sharapova. The brand released a short statement at the time saying it would suspend its relationship with her “while the investigation continues. We will continue to monitor the situation.” Tag Heuer and Porsche followed soon after.
Sharapova has been a Nike athlete for more than a decade; in 2010, she signed an eight-year contract renewal worth about $70 million.
Experts are unsure about what Nike’s next move will be, though. Nike dropped Lance Armstrong in 2013, and in 2005, it didn’t renew Marion Jones’ contract; they were both involved in separate doping scandals.
Sharapova’s situation could be seen differently because she’s been cooperative and also quickly admitted she didn’t know meldonium was a banned substance.
“I expect Nike will keep her suspended until she is reinstated,” said NPD Group sports industry analyst Matt Powell. “I don’t think it will have a major impact on the sport.”
Sharapova is hoping for a quick return to the court. “I have missed playing tennis and I have missed my amazing fans, who are the best and most loyal fans in the world. I have read your letters. I have read your social media posts and your love and support has gotten me through these tough days,” she said via Facebook on Wednesday.