Racquet manufacturer Head intends to extend its contract with five-time grand slam champion Maria Sharapova despite her failing a drug test at this year’s Australian Open.
The 28-year-old Russian will be provisionally suspended by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) from this weekend after admitting at a media conference on Monday to taking the banned substance meldonium.
Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer cut ties with Sharapova this week, while Nike and Porsche distanced themselves from her.
However, Head CEO Johan Eliasch said on Thursday that Sharapova, under contract with the racquet maker since 2011, had ‘earned the benefit of the doubt’ after making an ‘honest’ mistake.
“For a decade, Maria Sharapova has been a role model and woman of integrity who has inspired millions of fans around the world to play and watch tennis,” he said in a statement.
“The honesty and courage she displayed in announcing and acknowledging her mistake was admirable. Head is proud to stand behind Maria, now and into the future and we intend to extend her contract.
“We look forward to working with her and to announcing new sponsorships in the weeks and months ahead.”
In Los Angeles on Monday, Sharapova said she had been taking meldonium, also known as mildronate, for 10 years because of health problems and regular bouts of flu.
The drug, produced in Latvia but unavailable for purchase in the United States where Sharapova is based, was only added in January to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) list of banned substances.
Manufactured for people suffering heart problems, it can also increase blood flow and improve exercise capacity.
Head said it was convinced Sharapova had not taken the drug to gain any advantage.
“It is common ground within the scientific community that in order for meldonium to have any relevant performance-enhancing effect, it has to be taken in daily dosages in excess of 1000 to 2000mg,” the statement said.
“According to the attorney for Maria, her dosage was significantly less than that.”
While underlining Head’s commitment to clean sport, Eliasch said he trusted Sharapova’s explanation that she had not realised meldonium had been banned by WADA.
“In the absence of any evidence of any intent by Maria of enhancing her performance or trying to gain an unfair advantage through the use of mildronate, we further conclude this falls into the category of ‘honest’ mistakes,” he said.
Russian biathlete Eduard Latypov was suspended from competition on Thursday after testing positive for meldonium, the latest in a flurry of athletes to fall foul of the drug.
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