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 longtime sponsor Nike to announce it was suspending ties during the investigation.
The 28-year-old Sharapova, a five-time grand slam champion and the highest paid woman in sports, will be provisionally suspended starting March 12, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) said.
Tennis pro Maria Sharapova attends Nike's 'NYC Street Tennis' event on August 24, 2015 in New York City (Getty
She is the seventh athlete in a month to test positive for meldonium, which is used to treat diabetes and low magnesium, and 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."
Maria Sharapova poses before the Stella McCartney 2016 Spring/Summer ready-to-wear collection fashion show. (AFP)
"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," former world number one Sharapova told a news conference in a downtown Los Angeles hotel.
Two of Maria Sharapova's top sponsors have suspended ties with the Russian tennis star after she admitted failing a doping test.
Sportswear giant Nike suspended its sponsorship, saying in a statement that it was "saddened and surprised by the news." Swiss watch brand TAG Heuer says its deal with the Russian will not be renewed.
"We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues," it said.
TAG Heuer said in a statement that its previous contract with Sharapova had expired at the end of 2015 and it has pulled out of negotiations on a new agreement.
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.
Australian Open 2015 tennis tournament in Melbourne in this January 21, 2015 file photo. Reuters
Taken Meldonium for 10 years
According to Forbes, she earned $29.5 million in 2015, mostly from endorsements.
From the shadow of Chernobyl's nuclear wasteland to international super-stardom; from penniless arrival in the United States, without a word of English, to a fortune nudging the $200 million mark.
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.
Maria Sharapova poses at Sephora 5th Avenue in New York City. (Photo Getty Images)
"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."
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.
Maria Sharapova. (AFP)
It is not approved in the United States but is available in Russia, Latvia and other countries in that region.
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.
Former world number one Martina Hingis retired after receiving a two-year suspension for a positive cocaine test in 2007, though the Swiss denied taking the drug.
WTA saddened by news
Sharapova is the richest woman in sport and with more than 15 million fans, she is the most followed female athlete on Facebook.
Last year, the sport banned US player Wayne Odesnik for 15 years after his second doping violation, testing positive for steroids and other banned substances.
Sharapova is the biggest name in sport to test positive since New York Yankees baseball slugger Alex Rodriguez was banned for a year in 2013 after using performance-enhancing drugs and American cyclist Lance Armstrong was banned for life from racing in 2012 after a U.S. Anti-Doping investigation.
Sharapova, one of the most popular figures in global sports, has long been a favorite with her sponsors. Cosmetics maker Avon Products Inc declined to comment on its endorsements.
Steve Simon, CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, said in a statement he was saddened to hear the news.
"Maria (Sharapova) 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."
Russia's Maria Sharapova reacts during a news conference after losing her quarter-final match against Serena Williams of the U.S. at the Australian Open tennis tournament at Melbourne Park, Australia, in this January 26, 2016 file photo. Reuters
The news came a day after Sharapova's management team said she was going to make a "major announcement," which had many speculating that she was going to announce her retirement from professional tennis.
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 Serena Williams 6-1 6-4 in the 2004 final.
That victory also made her the third-youngest Wimbledon champion, behind only Lottie Dod and Hingis, and the fourth-youngest grand slam winner in the open era after Hingis, Monica Seles and Tracy Austin.