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Maria Sharapova meldonium suspension reduced to 15 months

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Maria Sharapova can start playing tennis again in April.

That was the ruling of the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Tuesday after hearing an appeal from Sharapova in September over her two-year doping ban. The court reduced the Russian tennis star's suspension to 15 months after determining that she acted with "no significant fault."

"Tennis is my passion and I have missed it," Sharapova said in a statement. "I am counting the days until I can return to the court."

In a 28-page decision, the independent panel said the suspension imposed by the International Tennis Federation for Sharapova's use of the banned drug meldonium was reduced, in part, because "under no circumstances ... can the player be considered to be an 'intentional' doper."

With the penalty backdated to when she tested positive at the Australian Open in late January, Sharapova will be able to compete in April. She will miss each of tennis' Grand Slams once during her suspension and will be eligible to pursue her sixth major title starting with the 2017 French Open.

"I've gone from one of my toughest days of my career last March when I learned about my suspension until now, one of my happiest days," Sharapova said in her statement. "In so many ways, I feel like something I love was taken away from me and it will feel really good to have it back."

WTA CEO Steve Simon said in a statement that the tennis organization supports the CAS ruling and looks forward to Sharapova's return to tennis.

Simon said Sharapova, who will have to rebuild her ranking from scratch, is entitled to "unlimited" wild cards based on her record. He expects her to be granted wild cards as soon as she is eligible, including for the French Open.

"I would be very surprised if there are too many tournaments that wouldn't extend her that opportunity," Simon said in a telephone interview. "I think she'll be able to work her way back onto the tour."

Sharapova appealed to the CAS after a tribunal appointed by the ITF in June ruled that she would be suspended for two years -- even though it was concluded that "the contravention of the anti-doping rule was not intentional."

The CAS tribunal wrote that the fact that she didn't intentionally try to cheat the system was relevant to the length of her suspension and therefore granted a reduction.

"The panel wishes to point out that the case it heard ... was not about an athlete who cheated," the panel wrote. "It was only about the degree of fault that can be imputed to a player for her failure to make sure that the substance contained in the product she has been legally taking over a long period, and for most of the time under the basis of a doctor's prescription, remained in compliance."

Meldonium, a Latvian-made heart drug that is commonly used in Russia, where it can be purchased over the counter, was included on the World Anti-Doping Agency's list of banned substances at the start of this year because it is believed to help the body produce energy more efficiently.

Sharapova was prescribed meldonium by a family doctor in 2005 and used it for more than a decade for what her team said was a family history of conditions that the drug addressed. She tested positive for meldonium in January at the Australian Open, and later said she was unaware that it had been banned.

Sharapova's suspension wasn't vacated because the CAS determined that she bore some responsibility. Sharapova had said she hadn't listed meldonium as a drug she took because it wasn't banned prior to 2016.

Her agent, Max Eisenbud, said in testimony that he failed to check for newly banned substances at the beginning of the year.

But the panel also felt that the ITF and WADA didn't do a satisfactory job of making sure players knew meldonium became banned in January or that Mildronate was a brand name for the drug. Sharapova had tested positive for meldonium when it wasn't banned, and neither organization ever informed her of its change in status.

Following the Australian Open testing, the ITF said Sharapova also tested positive for meldonium in an out-of-competition control in Moscow on Feb. 2.

Sharapova's lawyer, John Haggerty, called Tuesday's ruling a "stunning repudiation" of the ITF, which he said failed to properly notify players of the meldonium ban.

"The panel has determined it does not agree with many of the conclusions of the ITF," Haggerty said in a conference call. "As we demonstrated before CAS, not only did the tennis anti-doping authorities fail to properly warn Maria, if you compare what the ITF did with how other federations warned athletes of the rule change, it's a night-and-day difference."

Sharapova told PBS' Charlie Rose on Tuesday that she did not consider meldonium a performance enhancer, and criticized the ITF for not alerting her and other players of its addition to the list of prohibited substances. "There are lots of things that could have been done to prevent this," she said.

Head, one of the four major brands Sharapova endorses along with Nike, Porsche and Evian, congratulated Sharapova on her reduced suspension Tuesday.

"We are very proud to have stood by Maria for the right reasons throughout these difficult and testing times for both Maria and those who have supported her all over the world," Johan Eliasch, chairman and CEO of the tennis racket company, said in a statement.

Eliasch also called for a "wholesale comprehensive review and change to the anti-doping system" due to the inconsistencies highlighted in Sharapova's case. Nike, Evian and Porsche also released statements of support for Sharapova on Tuesday.

Ivars Kalvins, the Latvian chemist who invented meldonium, recently met with WADA to demonstrate why he thought the drug is not a doping substance. On Friday, WADA released its 2017 list of banned substances, which still includes meldonium.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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