Maria Sharapova faces an anti-doping panel in London on Wednesday knowing she will not benefit from recent confusion surrounding the drug she tested positive for in January.
The 29-year-old Russian stunned the tennis world in March when she announced at a press conference that she had failed a test for meldonium on 26 January, the day she lost an Australian Open quarter-final to Serena Williams.
The Latvian-made heart disease medication had only been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list on 1 January but had been on a watch list for over a year and all national anti-doping agencies were told in October that it would be banned.
With use of meldonium widespread across eastern Europe, Sharapova’s case was the most high-profile in an avalanche of positives in the first four months of the year. As of early May, Wada said there had been 288 positive samples.
But in April the agency was forced to make an embarrassing climbdown when it admitted there was a lack of scientific certainty on how long it takes for the drug to be completely excreted.
Early suggestions that it should be out of an athlete’s system within days gave way to fears it could be present in long-term users, in trace amounts, for weeks, if not months.
This led Wada to issue new guidance, directing that samples collected before 1 March below a certain concentration of meldonium could be discarded, as the athlete might be able to prove they had stopped taking it in 2015.
Last month the Belarusian doubles specialist Sergey Betov, who also tested positive at the Australian Open, was cleared by the International Tennis Federation on these grounds.
This prompted some to speculate that Sharapova, a five-time grand slam winner, could escape without punishment, which was always mistaken as both she and her lawyer John Haggerty had already admitted she had been taking it, on her doctor’s advice, throughout January.
This was underlined by the Russian sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, last month, when he told the Russian news agency Tass that the concentration of meldonium in Sharapova’s system was above the provisional limit.
Sharapova, instead, must try to convince an International Tennis Federation panel that the “laundry list” of health reasons that Haggerty referred to in March should qualify her for a backdated therapeutic use exemption (Tue), or sick note.
Whether this will be enough to enable the world’s highest-earning female athlete to avoid any ban at all is highly debatable, as all athletes sign up to the principle of strict liability and Tues should be arranged, and independently verified, in advance.
The maximum punishment available is four years but most anti-doping experts think a more likely ban is between six and 12 months, which would start from the date of her provisional suspension on 12 March, so even a ban at the lenient end of that range would lead to Sharapova missing the remaining grand slams this season, including Wimbledon, and the Rio Olympics.