Serena Williams has praised Maria Sharapova’s “courage and heart” for confessing she failed a drug test after their match at the Australian Open.
But world No 1 Williams insisted women’s tennis would survive without her richer Russian rival as her sponsors rushed up to dump her.
The two most famous female athletes in the world have long suffered a strained relationship on and off the court.
Williams was furious her former boyfriend Grigor Dimitrov left her for Sharapova in 2012 and also resents that the world No 7 earns more commercially despite being the inferior player.
The American wreaks regular revenge and has won their last 18 matches stretching back to 2004, including at this year’s Australian Open.
But, speaking in New York on Tuesday, Williams offered some carefully-worded sympathy and praise to Sharapova.
I think most people were surprised, but most people were happy that she was up front,” she said. “It’s just about taking responsibility, which she admitted she was willing to do.
“As Maria says, she’s ready to take responsibility, and that takes a lot of courage and heart. She’s always shown courage and heart (in tennis) and it’s no different.”
Sharapova will be provisionally banned from Saturday and must face an independent tribunal within 60 days.
Players can be banned for four years for deliberate cheating but the five-time Grand Slam winner insisted she continued taking meldonium by mistake after it was banned on January 1. A two-year ban would then apply.
Sharapova, who turns 29 next month, still faces the effective end of her career unless her defense can convince her tribunal of “mitigating circumstances”.
The former world No 1, the highest earning female athlete for the last 11 years, is one of the biggest draws in tennis. But Williams added she was “not concerned” that any ban could damage the sport.
“There are a lot of great stars on the WTA Tour,” claimed the 21-time Major winner. “We have a lot of young players, young US players doing really great. When the time comes someone will definitely step up and be that leader.”
Blue-chip sponsors Nike, TAG Heuer and Porsche have all suspended their relationships with Sharapova following her LA confession on Monday.
Evian said: “We will follow closely the development of the investigation.”
Meldonium is not approved in the USA and was added to the WADA banned list because it aids oxygen uptake and endurance.
The Latvian company that manufactures the substance said the normal course of treatment for the drug is four to six weeks, not the 10 years that Sharapova claimed she has been treated.
Former Wimbledon champion Virginia Wade said: “She is almost OCD, so it seems so bizarre that she would allow herself to fall into a trap like this.”
Sharapova is not the only Russian sports star to have fallen foul of the new status of meldonium.
The state-run news agency TASS has reported that volleyball international Alexander Markin, speed skating world champion Pavel Kalashnikov and short-track Olympic skating champion Semen Yelistratov have also tested positive for the substance.