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The International Tennis Federation (ITF) has banned Maria Sharapova for two years for using prohibited drug meldonium.

Maria Sharapova was provisionally banned in March after testing positive for meldonium at January’s Australian Open.

Meldonium, a heart disease drug, which 29-year-old Russian says she has been taking since 2006 for health issues, became a banned substance on January 1, 2016.

The five-time Grand Slam winner said she “cannot accept” the “unfairly harsh” ban – and will appeal.

Photo Getty Images

Photo Getty Images

Maria Sharapova will challenge the suspension, which is backdated to January 26, 2016, at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

In a statement, Maria Sharapova said the tribunal concluded her offence was “unintentional” and that she had not tried to use a “performance-enhancing substance”.

However, she claimed the ITF had asked the tribunal to impose a four-year ban, adding it “spent tremendous amounts of time and resources trying to prove I intentionally violated the anti-doping rules”.

The tribunal ruling said Maria Sharapova tested positive for meldonium in an out-of competition test on February 2, as well as in the aftermath of her Australian Open quarter-final defeat by Serena Williams on January 26. It treated both results as a single anti-doping violation.

The ITF will not appeal against the tribunal’s decision.

Nike, which suspended its relationship with Maria Sharapova in January, said it would “continue to partner” the Russian, based on the tribunal’s findings.

Maria Sharapova was Forbes‘ highest-paid female athlete for 11 consecutive years, until Serena Williams moved above her in 2016.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) said in April that scientists were unsure how long meldonium stayed in the system, and suggested athletes who tested positive before March 1 could avoid bans, provided they had stopped taking it before January 1.

Maria Sharapova had already admitted she continued taking the substance past that date, saying she was unaware it had been added to the banned list as she knew it by another name – mildronate.

In reaching its verdict, the ITF recognized Maria Sharapova had not intentionally broken anti-doping rules, as she did not know that mildronate contained a banned substance from January 2016.

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Maria Sharapova has revealed she failed a drugs test at the Australian Open in January.

The 28-year-old former world No 1 tested positive for meldonium, a substance she has been taking since 2006 for health issues.

Maria Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam champion, is provisionally suspended from March 12 pending further action.

“I did fail the test and take full responsibility for it,” she said.

“For the past 10 years I have been given a medicine called mildronate by my family doctor and a few days ago after I received a letter from the ITF [International Tennis Federation] I found out it also has another name of meldonium, which I did not know.”

Maria Sharapova won the Wimbledon title as a 17-year-old in 2004.

The Russian, who lives in Florida, provided the anti-doping sample in question on January 26, the day she lost to Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarter-finals.

Photo Getty Images

Photo Getty Images

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) analyzed the sample and returned a positive for meldonium, leading to the Russian being charged on March 2.

“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 that medicine for the past 10 years,” said Maria Sharapova.

“But on January 1 the rules had changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance, which I had not known.”

Maria Sharapova added: “I received an email on December 22 from WADA about the changes happening to the banned list and you can see prohibited items – and I didn’t click on that link.”

She has been the highest-earning female athlete in the world for the past 11 years, according to the Forbes list.

She first reached world No 1 in August 2005 and is currently seventh in the rankings – but she has played just four tournaments since Wimbledon last July as she struggled with an arm injury.

Maria Sharapova, who turns 29 in April, hopes to be able to return to tennis in the future.

However, there had been speculation Maria Sharapova was going to announce her retirement and a large media contingent gathered for the Los Angeles news conference, which was streamed live online.

“I know many of you thought that I would be retiring today but if I was ever going to announce my retirement it would not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet,” she said.

Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) president Steve Simon said he is “very saddened” at Maria Sharapova’s failed test.

“Maria is a leader and I have always known her to be a woman of great integrity,” he added.

“As Maria acknowledged, it is every player’s responsibility to know what they put in their body and to know if it is permissible.

“This matter is now in the hands of the Tennis Anti-Doping Program and its standard procedures. The WTA will support the decisions reached through this process.”