How Maria Sharapova can lose her doping case, even by winning

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With the president of the Russian tennis federation suggesting that Maria Sharapova’s disciplinary hearing for doping could be put off until June, the Sharapova camp is facing a sobering reality: It’s going to get late very quickly in the 2016 season and with the possibility of no discussions until early summer, Sharapova could be looking at missing the bulk of the year, including the event she’s had her eye on most — the 2016 Summer Olympics.

The Russian tennis superstar announced earlier this month that she had tested positive at the Australian Open for meldonium, a drug predominantly used in Eastern Europe and one put on the banned list on Jan 1. Sharapova was one of more than 100 athletes to test positive for the substance in those first weeks, suggesting it had probably been an "enhancer" while it was legal and that WADA’s literature on newly banned substances wasn’t read as carefully as it should have been.

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What’s all that mean for Sharapova? So far, none of the meldonium cases have hit the hearing stage. As she’s already stated, Sharapova will be using ignorance of the law as an excuse, something that doesn’t play well when I tell a cop that I did not know I was doing 60 in a 25-mph hospital zone. How it’ll play with a disciplinary board is a whole other issue. A short suspension seems to be the best-case scenario. I don’t know how you let this slide, even if it’s just with a slap on the wrist.

The problem for Sharapova (well, besides the obvious one) is that if she has to wait until June, there’s the very real possibility she’ll miss the most important tournaments of the season. It’s doubly crucial because it’s an Olympic year and Sharapova, the Russian flag-bearer at the 2012 London Games, will want to improve on her silver medal finish in those Olympics. 

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Will the timeline allow that? Let’s say the hearing is in the middle of June. At that point, Sharapova will have already missed the French Open. The case shouldn’t take long, but the decision could — waits for sanctions have ranged from days to weeks (and in some rare cases, months). If no verdict is handed down before June 29, Sharapova misses Wimbledon, too. The Olympic begin Aug. 5, which is a little less than seven months after the positive test.

The silver lining for Sharapova is this: Because she’s been indefinitely suspended since testing positive, any ban would likely be backdated to the Australian Open, meaning that if she gets a six-month ban, the timer wouldn’t start in June but back in January. In that case, she’d miss the French, maybe Wimbledon, but be back before the Olympics on Aug. 5, where she’d be ranked around No. 100 in the world. (Though she’d be around No. 32 in the eyes of the Games, which freeze the rankings after the French.)

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Still, I can’t shake this sneaking suspicion that even if Sharapova gets off lightly, the idea of letting her off with time served will appear so meek that officials might want to give something like three months on top of the four months she’ll have been suspended by June. In that case, anything more than an eight-month ban would basically fimish Sharapova’s season. She’ll have the positive outcome she wants (a suspension that won’t sideline her for serious time) but that’s ultimately a net loss (missing Wimbledon and the Olympics).

That’s what Team Sharapova should be worried about. Any talk of Wimbledon or the Olympics is simply a pipe dream right now for Maria Sharapova. She has two months to prepare for the fight of her life, one that will determine whether she’ll be back on the court and fighting for Olympic gold or sitting on the sidelines, waiting out a suspension that could knock her all the way to the bottom of the WTA rankings.