Racket sponsor backs Sharapova despite failed drug test

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VIENNA (AP) Maria Sharapova’s racket supplier became the first main sponsor to publicly back the five-time Grand Slam champion after she admitted to failing a doping test.

Austria-based company Head announced Thursday it was planning to extend its sponsorship deal, three days after Sharapova revealed her use of the banned substance meldonium.

Head CEO Johan Eliasch said Sharapova has made “a manifest error” by her continued use of the drug after it was banned, but added there was no “evidence of any intent by Maria of enhancing her performance or trying to gain an unfair advantage.”

Eliasch said his brand, which started sponsoring Sharapova in 2011, “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.”

Several other brands, including sports gear giant Nike, watch maker TAG Heuer, and sports car company Porsche, were quick to suspend their support of the world’s highest-earning female athlete after her announcement Monday that she failed the drug test at the Australian Open in January, days after the substance was banned.

A former No. 1 for a total of 21 weeks, Sharapova earned an estimated $29.5 million last year alone, mostly off the court. Sharapova has 35 career singles titles and more than $36 million in career prize winnings.

Sharapova said she has taken meldonium for 10 years for various health issues and that she neglected to click on a link in a late December email to check the new list of banned substances. She faces a lengthy ban, which could prevent her from competing for Russia at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

“She has and still is dealing with the medical conditions she described,” Eliasch said. “Prior to 2016, we believe that Maria has never throughout her career been taking any WADA banned substances or any other illegal substances.”

Eliasch said Sharapova was taking meldonium in such low doses that the drug couldn’t possibly have had a stimulating effect on her performance, and that “we further conclude this falls into the category of `honest’ mistakes.”

According to Eliasch, it “is common ground within the scientific community” that for meldonium to provide “any relevant performance enhancing effect it has to be taken in daily dosages in excess of 1,000 to 2,000mg.”

The dosages Sharapova had been taken “were significantly short of performance enhancing levels,” according to the CEO.

“The honesty and courage she displayed in announcing and acknowledging her mistake was admirable,” Eliasch said. “Maria may have made a mistake, but she has earned the benefit of the doubt and we are extending it to her.”

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.

Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov give Canada 1st Davis Cup title

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MALAGA, Spain — Felix Auger-Aliassime fell to his back behind the baseline, then waited for teammates to race off Canada’s bench and pile on top of him.

A few minutes later, the Canadians finally could lift the Davis Cup.

“I think of us all here, we’ve dreamt of this moment,” Auger-Aliassime said.

Canada won the title for the first time, beating Australia behind victories from Denis Shapovalov and Auger-Aliassime.

Auger-Aliassime secured the winning point when he downed Alex de Minaur 6-3, 6-4 after Shapovalov opened the day by rolling past Thanasi Kokkinakis 6-2, 6-4.

Seven years after leading Canada to the top of junior tennis, Auger-Aliassime, Shapovalov and their teammates finally got to lift the biggest team trophy in their sport.

“We wanted to grow up and be part of the team and try to help the country win the first title,” Shapovalov said, “so everything is just so surreal right now.”

Shapovalov had dropped both his singles matches this week and needed treatment on his back during a three-set loss in the semifinals to Lorenzo Sonego of Italy that lasted 3 hours, 15 minutes. But the left-hander moved quickly around the court, setting up angles to put away winners while racing to a 4-0 lead in the first set.

Auger-Aliassime then finished off his superb second half of the season by completing a perfect week in Spain. He twice had kept the Canadians alive after Shapovalov dropped the opening singles match, and he replaced his weary teammate to join Vasek Pospisil for the decisive doubles point.

This time, Auger-Aliassime made sure the doubles match wouldn’t even be necessary. After his teammates poured onto the court to celebrate with him, they got up and danced around in a circle.

Canada had reached the final only once, falling to host Spain in Madrid in 2019, when Rafael Nadal beat Shapovalov for the clinching point after Auger-Aliassime had lost in the opening match.

But with Auger-Aliassime having since surged up the rankings to his current spot at No. 6, the Canadians are a much more formidable team now. They won the ATP Cup in January and finally added the Davis Cup crown to the junior Davis Cup title Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov led them to in 2015.

Australia was trying for its 29th title and first since current captain Lleyton Hewitt was part of the title-winning team in 2003.

But it was finally time for the Canadians, who were given a wild card into the field when Russia was suspended because of its invasion of Ukraine.

“Look, I think we were very close today,” de Minaur said. “Just wait until the next time we get the same matchup. Hopefully we can get the win and prove that we can do it.”

But Canada will be tough to beat as long as Auger-Aliassime and Shapovalov play.

Shapovalov is just 23 and Auger-Aliassime 22, but both already have been Grand Slam semifinalists and Auger-Aliassime ended 2022 as one of the hottest players on the ATP Tour. He won all of his four titles this year, including three straight weeks in October.

He also beat Carlos Alcaraz in the previous Davis Cup stage in September, just after the Spaniard had won the U.S. Open to rise to No. 1 in the rankings. That victory helped send the Canadians into the quarterfinals, which they started this week by edging Germany.

“They’re not kids anymore, that’s for sure. Not after today – well not after the last couple of years,” said Pospisil, the team veteran at 32. “They’ve been crushing it.”