Simona Halep in fight to salvage career and legacy as doping saga rumbles on

Romanian handed four-year ban for two doping offences and has begun appeal proceedings

Simona Halep has been handed a four-year suspension for two doping offences. Getty
Powered by automated translation

Tuesday's announcement from the International Tennis Integrity Agency provided the worst possible outcome for Simona Halep.

Not only did the ITIA find Halep guilty of intentional doping, after the Romanian tested positive for the blood-boosting substance roxadustat at the 2022 US Open, but also on a second anti-doping breach relating to irregularities in her Athlete Biological Passport.

Halep, who has been provisionally suspended since October last year, was handed a four-year ban from tennis – two years for each offence – which means she won't be able to return to the tour until October 2026.

The former world No 1 immediately, and inevitably, announced that she would appeal against the ruling, describing the ordeal as "the hardest match of my life ... unfortunately my fight continues”.

Should the original decision be upheld, Halep, who turns 32 later this month, will not be eligible to play competitive tennis again until just after her 35th birthday.

It's perhaps futile to compare tennis's past high-profile doping cases to Halep's, but the precedents could give an indication of what Halep is dealing with in terms of the appeal process.

Marin Cilic, the 2014 US Open champion, was handed a nine-month ban in 2013 after testing positive for the banned substance nikethamide, his comparatively short suspension was due to the low levels of the substance detected. The Croatian successfully appealed and the ban was reduced to four months.

Russian superstar Maria Sharapova was the subject of arguably the most infamous doping case in tennis history when, in 2016, she announced she tested positive for meldonium – a substance that had recently been added to the banned list. Sharapova appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and her ban was reduced from two years to 15 months.

However, there are significant differences between Halep's case and those of Cilic and Sharapova. Cilic, for instance, was able to prove the low levels of the banned substance, while CAS sided with Sharapova in her argument that she did not take meldonium to intentionally cheat.

Halep, meanwhile, has a dual fight on her hands. Firstly, she must convince CAS to overturn or reduce the two-year doping ban, which was handed down following analysis of evidence provided by scientific experts and 8,000 pages of documents.

Maria Sharapova was banned for two years, reduced to 15 months, for a doping offence in 2015. AFP

The independent tribunal, which announced the sanction, accepted Halep's argument that she had taken a contaminated supplement but concluded the levels of roxadustat found in the samples were higher than what the player claimed to have ingested.

To appeal against the other two-year ban, Halep needs to hope CAS sides with her against three independent Athlete Passport Management Unit experts who unanimously held the "strong opinion" that “likely doping” was the reason behind the irregularities in her ABP.

Yet, even if Halep is partially successful in her appeal and gets her suspension reduced – a complete overturn of the decision is highly improbable – her career appears to be all but over.

While it's impossible to predict a timeline, the complex and lengthy appeal process, particularly when appealing against two separate charges, will not be over any time soon.

Simona Halep's crowning moment came at Wimbledon in 2019. AP

Even in the absolute best-case scenario, as far as Halep is concerned, she will be looking at a further 12 months of inactivity – and that's if her suspension is ultimately overturned altogether, which will be unlikely.

When, or even if, Halep eventually returns to tennis, getting back to the pinnacle will be an almighty task. Pace, power and aggression are becoming ever more valuable attributes in the women's game, but Halep had been able to counter the big hitters with her immense fitness, intelligence and consistency.

Can a Halep in her mid-30s, who has not played competitively for two or more years, ever regain the levels of stamina and sharpness required to compete once again for the biggest trophies? The way the game is evolving, the odds are firmly stacked against her.

Whatever her level of guilt and culpability, it marks a sad end to the career of one of the most popular players of the modern era.

Halep's maiden Grand Slam triumph, at the 2018 French Open, was met with widespread delight after a heartbreaking defeat in the final 12 months earlier. The following season, in the 2019 Wimbledon final, the Romanian produced the best performance of her career to demolish Serena Williams for her second major title.

Halep spent a total of 64 weeks as world No 1 over two spells and won 24 titles on the WTA Tour. Her 20th title, achieved at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, is one that sticks in the memory; from the thrilling final against Elena Rybakina to the vociferous support from the Romanian fans, it encapsulated what made her such a popular champion.

Halep was a player of real grit and determination. The Romanian will need those qualities and more to salvage not only her career but her legacy.

Updated: September 13, 2023, 12:00 PM