An independent panel overseeing antidoping rules for tennis has issued a four-year suspension to Simona Halep of Romania, a ruling that could effectively end the career of the former world No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion.
Halep, 31, was charged with two separate breaches of the sport’s antidoping rules, following a failed drug test at the U.S. Open in 2022. Halep tested positive for Roxadustat, a drug commonly used for people suffering from anemia, a condition resulting from a low level of red blood cells.
Roxadustat is on the list of banned substances because it artificially stimulates hemoglobin and red blood cell production, which is a technique for players to gain more endurance. The drug does this by getting the body to produce more of the hormone erythropoietin, commonly referred to as “EPO,” which plays an important role in red blood cell production.
Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body. More red blood cells can result in increased endurance, which made EPO a particularly common performance-enhancing substance in professional cycling for years.
In addition, Halep was also accused of having irregularities in her blood compared with samples that the agency had access to as part of her so-called biological passport, which provides doping enforcement officials with a baseline. The three-person tribunal that heard the case between the International Tennis Integrity Agency and Halep found that those irregularities suggested the use of banned substances during the season.
Halep, who had never previously failed a drug test, had argued and provided evidence to support her contention that the Roxadustat had been present in a contaminated supplement that she had taken ahead of the U.S. Open, but that it had not been listed as one of the ingredients. The tribunal accepted that argument, but after hearing expert testimony, it concluded that the supplement contamination could not account for the amount of Roxadustat found in her urine.
Karen Moorhouse, the chief executive of the I.T.I.A., said the agency welcomed the decision after a yearlong process that had received significant criticism from both Halep, coaches she has worked with and other players. Moorhouse said that about 8,000 pages of evidence was considered.
“The I.T.I.A. has followed the proper processes as we would with any other individual — in accordance with the World Anti-Doping Code — fulfilling our purpose and responsibility to uphold the principle of fair competition, on behalf of the sport,” she said.
In a statement released through her communications team, Halep said that she had never knowingly or intentionally taken a banned substance and that she would appeal the ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which functions as a top court for sports disputes. She said the evidence she had presented to the tribunal was compelling.
“While I am grateful to finally have an outcome following numerous unfounded delays and a feeling of living in purgatory for over a year, I am both shocked and disappointed by their decision,” Halep said.
The suspension is the highest-profile ruling in the sport since Maria Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam champion and one of the world’s highest-paid female athletes, received a two-year suspension in 2016 for a doping violation.
Sharapova tested positive for a heart medication that is said to improve blood flow and allow athletes to recover faster, in January 2016, shortly after it was added to a list of banned substances.
Sharapova quickly admitted that she had for 10 years taken a heart drug whose active ingredient is Meldonium to manage what she said were a variety of health problems. She was not aware that the drug had been banned, she said. Sharapova was 29 when she was suspended, and though she did return to tennis, she retired in 2020 when she was 32.
If the Court of Arbitration for Sport upholds the suspension, Halep will be banned from competing in tennis until October 2026 because she has been provisionally suspended for nearly a year.