Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova has reportedly fronted a secret hearing to answer allegations she used banned substance meldonium.
Sharapova was widely expected to give evidence before a tribunal in London late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning (AEST), as reported by The Guardian and many other British media outlets.
But journalists who flocked to the International Tennis Federation headquarters in London were thwarted. A secret venue was used instead, no doubt to avoid the intense public scrutiny.
“Sharapova’s anti-doping hearing is taking place at an undisclosed location — not at ITF London HQ,” reported US journalist Louise Dewast from outside the headquarters. Several other journalists were similarly disappointed.
According to many reports, the hearing is expected to extend into a second day, with a verdict delivered days or weeks after.
Sharapova was conspicuously silent on her various social media accounts during the hours she was expected to be giving evidence. Her last post on Twitter and Instagram was an identical photo uploaded at least 24 hours earlier, from nearby Paris.
The secret of the hearing’s location was well-kept. The New Daily saw numerous reports from across the world confirming the hearing’s existence, but none were able to pinpoint its whereabouts.
The back story
Sharapova revealed in March that she had made a “huge mistake” by failing a drug test at the 2016 Australian Open.
The Russian provided a sample after a quarter-final loss to Serena Williams on January 26 that was positive to banned substance meldonium.
Meldonium can aid athletes in endurance and recovery and protect against stress.
Sharapova, who made the revelation at a Los Angeles hotel, said she had been taking meldonium for 10 years due to “several medical conditions”.
She added that it was not placed on WADA’s banned list until January 1 2016 and that she failed to read an email that stated the drug’s new status in December.
The Russian acknowledged that she had let her fans down with the positive test.
The fall-out was extensive for the highest paid woman in sport, with sponsors such as Nike, Porsche and TAG Heuer all cancelling their involvement with Sharapova.
Andy Murray was particularly vocal against Sharapova while many fellow players stayed quiet on the subject — and tellingly offered her no support.
Dominika Cibulkova joined the criticism, though, dubbing Sharapova as “arrogant, conceited and cold” and “totally unlikeable”.
A potential loophole emerged last month when WADA backtracked on meldonium, saying: “In the case of meldonium, there is currently a lack of clear scientific information on excretion times.”
It added that because of this reason, if it could not prove whether an athlete had taken the drug after January 1, grounds for no fault or negligence may exist. At the time it was seen as a win for Sharapova.
It is widely expected that the International Tennis Federation hearing will result in a verdict imposing a suspension ranging from six months to a maximum four years. But it may also clear her of guilt and impose no penalty.