Pound: Sharapova guilty of ‘willful negligence’ in drug test

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LONDON (AP) Maria Sharapova was guilty of “willful negligence” for using meldonium, and international tennis officials were aware that many players were taking the drug before it was banned this year, former World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound said Wednesday.

Pound told The Associated Press that Sharapova could face a ban of up to four years unless she can prove mitigating circumstances to explain her positive test for meldonium at the Australian Open in January.

Meldonium, a Latvian-manufactured drug designed to treat heart conditions, was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list on Jan. 1 after authorities noticed widespread use of the substance among athletes.

In announcing her positive test at a news conference in Los Angeles on Monday, Sharapova said she had been using the drug for 10 years for various medical issues. The five-time Grand Slam champion and world’s highest-earning female athlete said she hadn’t realized meldonium had been prohibited this year, taking full responsibility for her mistake.

“An athlete at that level has to know that there will be tests, has to know that whatever she or he is taking is not on the list, and it was willful negligence to miss that,” Pound said. “She was warned in advance I gather. The WADA publication is out there. She didn’t pay any attention to it. The tennis association issued several warnings, none of which she apparently read.”

“I am sorry, if you are running a $30 million a year sole enterprise you better make sure the basis for that commercial success, if nothing else, remains unassailable,” Pound added in the interview with the AP on the sidelines of the Tackling Doping in Sport conference at Twickenham Stadium.

Current WADA president Craig Reedie questioned why Sharapova was prescribed meldonium.

“If the reports are true and this was happening when she was a teenager, then you begin to wonder why a drug that is basically to help heart problems was administered,” he said.

Pound disclosed that international tennis officials had flagged up the use of meldonium to the WADA committee that monitors the use of various drugs and recommends whether to put them on the banned list.

“Clearly, within the tennis circle at least, they were aware that a lot of the players were using it (meldonium) and said that there must be something to this, so they referred it to the WADA list committee,” Pound said.

So far, Sharapova is the only tennis player with a known positive test for meldonium.

Meldonium, which is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, was banned by WADA because it aids oxygen uptake and endurance. Several other athletes in various international sports have already been caught using it since it was banned Jan. 1.

Sharapova is being provisionally suspended by the International Tennis Federation, which will hold hearings on the case and decide on any long-term ban.

“She faces up to four years sanction for this,” Pound said. “There will have to be a review of whatever mitigating factors there may be, and not many leap to mind.”

Pound said he did not understand why Sharapova would have been taking the drug for so long.

The player said Monday that she had taken meldonium for a decade following various health problems including regular sicknesses, early signs of diabetes and “irregular” results from echocardiography exams.

“Looking at it from 10,000 feet and from outside, you say, `I am sorry but that doesn’t hold together,”‘ Pound said. “You’re in the United States, this is a product that is not available in the United States, and so there has got to be more to this than meets the eye. She will have the burden of saying, `Here’s why I don’t think I should face the full four years.”‘

Grindeks, the Latvian company that manufactures meldonium, said the normal course of treatment with meldonium is four to six weeks.

“One of the issues that will have to be dealt with is that the use of this product for therapeutic purposes is not a long term,” Pound said. “You use it for a single intervention for weeks or months maybe but not for 10 years in a row.”

Sharapova’s lawyer, John J. Haggerty, said Tuesday that he wanted “to disabuse the concept that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that’s simply not the case.”

Nick Bollettieri, coach to many tennis stars, dies at 91

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Nick Bollettieri, the Hall of Fame tennis coach who worked with some of the sport’s biggest stars, including Andre Agassi and Monica Seles, and founded an academy that revolutionized the development of young athletes, died at 91.

Bollettieri died at home in Florida after a series of health issues, his manager, Steve Shulla, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

“When he became sick, he got so many wonderful messages from former students and players and coaches. Many came to visit him. He got videos from others,” Shulla said. “It was wonderful. He touched so many lives and he had a great send-off.”

Known for his gravelly voice, leathery skin and wraparound sunglasses – and a man who called himself the “Michelangelo of Tennis” despite never playing professionally – Bollettieri helped no fewer than 10 players who went on to be No. 1 in the world rankings. That group includes sisters Serena and Venus Williams, Jim Courier, Maria Sharapova, Agassi and Seles.

“Our dear friend, Nick Bollettieri, graduated from us last night. He gave so many a chance to live their dream,” Agassi wrote on Twitter. “He showed us all how life can be lived to the fullest. Thank you, Nick.”

Bollettieri remained active into his 80s, touring the world to drop in on the top tournaments and, in 2014, became only the fourth coach to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. That was the same year another one of his proteges, Kei Nishikori, reached the final of the U.S. Open.

Six of his pupils already are in the Hall of Fame, a number sure to grow once others are eligible.

“I forged my own path, which others found to be unorthodox and downright crazy,” Bollettieri said in his induction speech at the hall in Newport, Rhode Island. “Yes, I am crazy. But it takes crazy people to do things that other people say cannot be done.”

The Bollettieri Tennis Academy opened in 1978 in Bradenton, Florida, and was purchased by IMG in 1987.

The IMG Academy now spans more than 600 acres and offers programs in more than a half-dozen sports in addition to tennis.

Bollettieri was an educator who would brag he never read a book, never mind that he majored in philosophy in college and even gave law school a try, albeit for less than a year.

He also was an adept self-promoter – one who would publish a pair of autobiographies – no matter that detractors dismissed him as a hustler and huckster. The truth is, any criticism was no match for the astounding success of his pupils.

His teaching methods were widely copied and tennis academies dot the globe today.

“Our sport lost one of its most passionate coaches & advocates,” Hall of Fame member Billie Jean King wrote on Twitter. “Nick was always positive & was able to get the best out of everyone fortunate enough to work w/him.”

Bollettieri’s first student to reach No. 1 was Boris Becker in 1991. Then came others, such as Martina Hingis, Marcelo Rios and Jelena Jankovic.

Just as rewarding, Bollettieri said, were the successes of less accomplished players.

“The fuel that has sustained me to the summit is, without a doubt, my passion to help others become champions of life, not champions just on the tennis court,” he said. “Nothing makes me more happy than when I run into a past student or receive a kind note telling me how I changed their lives, that they are better parents, lawyers, doctors, CEOs and people because of the impact I made on their lives.”

Bollettieri’s devotion to his players came at a cost. For much of his career, he was on the road nine months out of every year, and he cited his travel schedule as one reason he was married eight times.

Survivors include his wife, Cindi, seven children and four grandchildren, according to Shulla, who said a celebration of Bollettieri’s life is planned for March.

Nicholas James Bollettieri was born July 31, 1931, in Pelham, New York. He earned a philosophy degree and played tennis at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama, and was a paratrooper in the Army before enrolling in law school at the University of Miami.

For spending money, Bollettieri began teaching tennis for $1.50 an hour, according to the Hall of Fame. More than 60 years later, his fee was $900.

After a few months, he dropped out of law school to concentrate on coaching. At first, he conceded, knowledge of tennis technique wasn’t his forte.

“I didn’t know much about teaching the game,” he said. “The gift God gave me was the ability to read people.”

Bollettieri won praise for his motivational skills, yelling when he deemed it necessary. He had an eye for talent and was a visionary regarding boot-camp training for young athletes who lived together.

He bought a club in 1978, and students lived in his house. Two years later, he borrowed $1 million from a friend to build a first-of-its-kind complex in what had been a tomato field.

The site now has a boarding school, 55 tennis courts and facilities for seven other sports, including football, basketball and baseball.

Running a business wasn’t Bollettieri’s strong suit, and he sold the academy to IMG but continued to work there, stressing a tactical approach that transformed tennis. He urged players to take advantage of modern racket technology, emphasizing power over finesse.

The academy churned out big hitters who relied on their serve and forehand to overpower opponents. That approach worked for Agassi, Seles, Courier and many others.

“In my dreams,” Bollettieri confessed with a grin, “I say, `Nick, you’re darn good.”‘

Fernando Verdasco accepts 2-month doping ban

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LONDON – Former top-10 player Fernando Verdasco accepted a voluntary provisional doping suspension of two months after testing positive for a medication for ADHD, the International Tennis Integrity Agency announced.

Verdasco, who turned 39 this month, said he was taking methylphenidate as medication prescribed by his doctor to treat ADHD but forgot to renew his therapeutic use exemption for the drug. The integrity agency said Verdasco has now been granted an exemption by the World Anti-Doping Agency moving forward.

He tested positive at an ATP Challenger tournament in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in February.

The integrity agency said in a news release that it “accepts that the player did not intend to cheat, that his violation was inadvertent and unintentional, and that he bears no significant fault or negligence for it,” and so what could have been a two-year suspension was reduced to two months.

Verdasco will be eligible to compete on Jan. 8.

The Spaniard is a four-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist, reaching that stage most recently in 2013 at Wimbledon, where he blew a two-set lead in a five-set loss to eventual champion Andy Murray.

Verdasco reached a career-best ranking of No. 7 in April 2009 and currently is No. 125.