A racket with no net

Drugs
Tennis exists in a cosy world of big money, good looks and high performance that’s left everyone smiling. But behind this, the carry on of the sport suggests there’s a dark and dirty secret, writes Ewan MacKenna

Perhaps it was the early hours that were playing tricks. It was near rising time for everyone else yet you were still sunk into the sofa, all because of a game of tennis. Andy Murray was playing his best match in an age but across the court, facing Novak Djokovic, he might as well have been hitting against a wall. In a weak moment, that US Open quarter-final had you thinking this was the greatest era the sport had known.

As day broke back in August, maybe it was light that brought sense along with a line in a Telegraph blog about Murray. “He heartbreakingly couldn’t quite match the ridiculous endurance levels of Djokovic.” Whether it was a veiled comment we’ll never know, but we do know the world number one is tender to talk about his use of a pressure chamber whose chief executive says may be twice as effective at helping the body absorb oxygen as blood doping, and of which Wada said was “against the spirit of the sport”. This after Djokovic admitted on route to winning the 2013 Australian Open that he hadn’t been drug tested in six months.

This is not to accuse Djokovic himself, but it does raise major questions about the reality of tennis for behind the good looks, charm and a sitcom feel to the entire circuit are doubts so dark they blacken the illusion. The reality is this is a cosy little club where media get access and everyone else gets rich. As one prominent tennis writer says, “For some reason most tennis journalists don’t want to know about drugs in their game”.

Nadal

A few years back, after the remarkable work done by Paul Kimmage and David Walsh in cycling, it became popular to call out every sport without so much as a warning light on the dash. But with tennis, there’ve long been flames melting the bonnet. Athletes across comparable sports have been found to repeatedly dope so why would it be different? Tennis players have the same motives of wealth and fame and the same opportunities through a weak testing regime, so to think they’ve fortified morals because they’re likeable is to be blind. At this point meet head of tennis testing, Stuart Miller.

He’s on record as saying, “You can’t be a great player without a significant amount of skill, and that in itself helps tennis be a little more confident there isn’t widespread abuse… It may be that tennis is not conducive to EPO… Maybe tennis is not a sport that is driven by a need to maximize stamina… Tennis is not obviously lending itself to a particular category of performance-enhancing products”.

But there are two ways to be fooled. One is to believe what isn’t true; the other is to refuse to believe what is true. So here is a sport where huge advantages are accorded by upper-body power and where there’s a need for huge endurance and explosive bursts across consecutive hours and days. Stamina can equal EPO. Strength can equal anabolic steroids. Recovery can equal testosterone. Agility can equal stimulants. Little wonder, when asked if he knew how widespread doping was in tennis, former Wada President John Fahey said: “No I don’t and nor do I think tennis knows how widespread it is.” Little wonder Roger Federer said: “Naivety says that tennis is clean.” Little wonder Jo-Wilfried Tsonga said: “I just don’t know who I believe anymore. Everybody is lying.”

Errani

There is a history here. John McEnroe admitted to corticosteroids. Andre Agassi revealed he tested positive for meth in 1997, but convinced the governing body he’d sipped his assistant’s spiked soda. By 1999 Jim Courier said there was an EPO problem. And in 2002 and 2003, Greg Rusedski was one of eight with illegal nandrolone levels but charges were quashed and six others were never named. But these aren’t just old school issues.

Serena Williams wasn’t tested across 2010 or 2011 yet finally, in October 2011, when testers went to her house she fled to her panic room saying she thought it was a robber. No test was subsequently conducted. Cocaine may not be performance enhancing but it has pointed to system flaws. In 2009, Richard Gasquet was cleared of using the drug because he kissed a woman who’d taken it. Rafael Nadal supported his defence but he’s been dogged by accusations too. This year, former pro Christopher Rochus commentating during the Australian Open said the Spaniard was faking injury to return to the locker room to “get a shot”. It wasn’t his first attack on a player that has drawn huge attention for his cycles of dominance followed by bizarre injuries followed by a superhuman ability to bounce back from problems with key areas like wrists and knees.

But there’s so much more. In 2012, Luis Garcia del Moral was banned by the US Anti-Doping Agency after affidavits from Lance Armstrong’s former teammates said he’d drawn up doping plans, supplied EPO, testosterone, HGH and cortisone, and did blood transfusions while at cycling’s US Postal. Yet he’d also been working at the TenisVal Academy for over a decade and that same year after rocketing in the rankings, Sara Errani said he was the best doctor in Valencia so of course she worked with him while Dinara Safina raved about his work. Nothing came of this nor did anything come of the sport being linked to the Biogenesis investigation in America. In these cases, do you believe doctors doped athletes in other sports but not their tennis clientele?

The International Tennis Federation’s silence just adds to the noise. If a player tests positive, it’s only made public when a ban is handed down, meaning an appeal can overturn results and we never know the who, what, where, when, how or why. Between 2007 and 2011, the ITF reported 53 positives but only 21 anti-doping violations and never explained the anomaly. True, testing has increased with the recent introduction of biological passports, but in terms of improvements, you can only go up from bedrock.

Serena

That’s where ITF testing lay low a handful of years ago. For instance, figures compiled by the superb ‘Tennis Has a Steroid Problem’ website show that between 2006 and 2011 there was a 33 per cent reduction in blood testing, in 2008 just 20 EPO tests took place, and by 2012 there were only 63 out-of-competition blood tests. But with more funding and more scrutiny come more queries. Does quantity equal quality, why no figures to show if testing has switched to winner-targeted, where are key statistics once readily available? For all the talk, we aren’t allowed see the walk.

Next Sunday the men’s tour finale starts in London after another season of the same. All year tennis stars brilliantly played each other. But the question remains who amongst them played the rest of us as well?

Sunday Business Post
2 November, 2014 

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22 comments

  1. Great column, Ewan. Glad to see someone can use their own eyes and see the obvious. Too bad tennis officials and the tennis media continue to bury their heads in the sand.

  2. katherine · · Reply

    There was a certain 33-year-old, that played one tournament after another this year and seemingly never got tired. I don’t see him mentioned in the the column. Nevertheless at least on the men’s side testing is very strict, it needs to be much more transparent though.

    1. I saw Roger get tired on numerous occasions this year. The quarters agains Monfils at the US Open is definitely one. At Paris-Bercy he looked wiped against Raonic. And you can see how he is playing to preserve his body rather than going full blast.

  3. inigo rose · · Reply

    that 33 year old visibly tired in the 5 set matches, played a shorter season then most stayed away from more then 2 tournaments without at least a weeks rest in between, was mentioned in the article and has consistently called out for more testing, a biological passport and blood samples to be kept for 7 years so they can be tested retroactively. the great Pancho Gonzales was also incredibly long lived as a player playing asimilar serve and skill centered game into his 40’s in an era before doping, with a similar physique; low muscled arms strong core and legs….

  4. Great article Ewan. I hope you delve into the issue more considering that no mainstream Tennis journalist can be asked to do so. Nice that you called out the obvious players who exhibit patterns of PED use. I see comments here who are upset about that. Good work.

  5. “..This after Djokovic admitted on route to winning the 2013 Australian Open that he hadn’t been drug tested in six months”
    Shouldn’t writing an article like this require some fact checks when attributing statements to players? This statement made by the writer is incorrect. Djokovic ‘admitted’ that he hadn’t had a ‘blood test’ done for a while (still tested for urine). Federer also admitted the same thing, about lack of blood test done for him, so why no mention of that?
    Strange that Murray-Djokovic USO match this year should be the one mentioned for endurance, but not USO final two years ago, when Murray outlasted Djokovic in five sets, remember that one? Djokovic is simply a superior player to Murray, something British tennis writers/ commentators sometimes have a hard time accepting. As for the pressure chamber, there is no evidence that Djokovic has even used it since 2010 USO, only time he admitted to trying it out couple of times, and it was not illegal.
    This is not to defend Djokovic, just to point out the imbalance in the article.
    Anyway, any credibility of the remaining piece was unfortunately lost once that site ‘tennishasasteroidprobelm’ is mentioned as ‘superb’. A site that was started by disgruntled Federer fans, who couldn’t accept that their GOD of tennis was being crushed by a mere Dirtballer, sorry to say but that site would never be fully trusted, and trust & credibility of the writer is crucial for such matters.

    1. Blood testing is the most effective (and, in some cases, the only) way to discover the most used performance enhancing drugs since the 90s: EPO, HGH, insuline and others. Having no blood tests is pretty much the same as having no tests, since masking agents and other techniques have been around during decades to avoid being discovered through urine.

  6. It’s worth a mention that a certain US Open champion from this year served a ban of sorts last year

  7. Re Katherine

    That 33 yo did get tired, visibly so. Anyway unless you are an expert on that then don’t throw accusations.

    Good to see someone writing an article but still as pointed out the facts are not exactly correct ie It was no blood test for Djokovic. No blodd test is very bad but the problem is he is being misquoted.

  8. You also never see sharp spikes in form from that 33 year old, unlike Djokovic who suddenly reached peak fitness in 2011 after barely being able to finish 5 setters in 2010 and Nadal’s cyclical career.

  9. Well said. The way I explain it to people is that there is an inherent risk of doping in tennis. Some players are bound to be doping, and you have to be testing for it.

    A couple of specific points though I wanted to raise – firstly, Djokovic and his pressure tent. I think WADA is out of line is saying it is “against the spirit of the sport”. If WADA or anyone wants to ban the use of these things, then they should. But insinuating it is wrong without presenting a clear case that this is so is not something WADA should be doing. Of the same ilk, platelet-rich plasma, which is thought to have similar properties to HGH. Players and fans alike will be better served if WADA is clear when something is banned (they could also have something deemed as “under investigation” and apply whatever policy they like around usage); but if they don’t ban something, then it should be regarded as ok until otherwise determined.

    Re. the Rusedski case. The charges weren’t actually quashed. The case was dropped entirely because it was almost certain the positive test had come about due to supplements Rusedski had received from ATP-tour trainers. (under the principle of equitable estoppel, the ATP could not pursue charges against him – and we assume the unnamed others)

    Re. Winner-targeted testing. To me, loser-targeted testing makes reasonable sense. When a player loses, his tournament is over, it is probably the last chance to test him/her at that event. The winner will play in the following round, so there will be another opportunity to test him/her. Now clearly, winners should be randomly tested too, especially for doping violations which will remain traceable only for a short time. But loser-targeted testing is not as daft as it seems.

    Lastly, this “The reality is this is a cosy little club where media get access and everyone else gets rich.” This isn’t quite the case – and it might also be the factor that breaks open tennis’ secrets. People at the top of the game get rich. But further down the chain, much less so. Sponsorship and endorsements are heavily skewed to the top-20. Sergei Stakhovsky reckons after 10-12 years in the game, and he’s a guy who has been ranked inside the top-100 most of his career, he might end up $500k ahead. There is increasing inequality in tennis, and the guys outside the top 5% might be more willing to speak out if they feel the top players are getting preferential doping protection. If the ATP policy is to hang Troickis out to dry, one day one of these journeymen will break ranks about unfair treatment.

  10. Good article. True, at the 2013 AO Djokovic said he hadn’t had a blood test, not a urine test, and probably hadn’t had an out-of-comp test either. But plenty of facts were not pointed out in this article that could have been. At this same AO Djokovic took 5 long sets to beat Wawrinka in a slugfest finishing about 1am, then came back and beat Ferrer in 3 easy sets in the semi-final and made Ferrer (totally suspicious in my book, worked with TennisVal and Del Moral) look like an amateur! Djokovic hasn’t been as robotic since that tournament. Maybe the blood passport is partly responsible?

    As for the Tennis has a steroid problem website, since the new blog administrator took over a few years ago, it’s been nothing but unbiased facts and testing stats. The facts speak for themselves.

  11. Teresa Hughes · · Reply

    It baffles me how anybody can think tennis is clean. I have no doubts that Ferrer, Nadal and Djokovic are doped up to their eyeballs. Probably a few others as well. At some point tennis has got to address the farce that is Nadal. It is making tennis a laughing stock.

  12. After a couple of slower years, Roger has returned to his best at the late age of 33.

    Better living through chemistry?

    Sorry I could not resist.

    Just wanted to point out the obvious self serving hypocrisy in this article (unless I’m mistaken and the author is not obviously a Federer fan).

    For me, given that the average age of the professional tennis player continues to grow at an alarming rate, and the lack of effective testing, I wouldn’t be that shocked if all of them are doing something questionable including the “Top 4”.

  13. Doubter · · Reply

    As a long-time cycling fan, you here that are denying that there is a doping problem in tennis are being willfully naïve. If something is too good to be true in sport, it usually is. Lance Armstrong, the entire NFL, numerous track and field stars (some major ones yet uncaught), Marion Jones…..the list is near endless. There is certainly doping in tennis, and the guys at the top of the sport are definitely doing it.

  14. So, Murray lost because Djokovic doped? This is where articles like these lose credibility. Fitness is the one area where Murray has had an advantage over Novak (see: USO’12). It doesn’t shock me when a skinny guy can run forever. It does surprise me when a muscular guy can run forever; how do you gain mass while doing tons of cardio? Murray is Arnold compared to Novakl look at his transformation under Lendl. And don’t get me started on certain Spaniards.
    And tennis is one sport where accusations from other players whould be more common, if dpoing were widespread. There is no team to cut you or blackball you if you’re a whistleblower.
    Having said all that, would it shock me if Novak doped, at least in 2011? No, I’m past being shocked. But I love the Anglo (especially British) press selectively picking targets that suit them.

    1. Ireland is neither Anglo nor British.

  15. […] A really good article, by Ewan MacKenna, about tennis, drug testing, the lack of drug testing and the shortcomings with the system – A racket with no net […]

  16. Friends Forever · · Reply

    Indeed. It’s clear that Federer’s almost superhuman domination of the sport in the mid 2000s is due to PEDs. How much he’s taken and how well he’s concealed it we may never know.

  17. If anyone near the top in tennis is clean, it’s Federer. His game of skill, touch, anticipation, economy of movement, imagination and strategic intelligence would be more likely to suffer from PEDs than to profit from them.
    If, on the other hand, your game depends on stamina, strength of shot and dogged determination, then you need PEDs to remain at the top in tennis. Sad to say.

  18. If anyone near the top in tennis is clean, it’s Federer. A game that depends on skill, touch, anticipation, economy of movement, imagination and strategic intelligence is more likely to suffer from PEDs than to profit from them.
    If, on the other hand, your game depends on stamina, strength of shot and dogged determination, then you need PEDs to stay at the top in tennis. Sad to say.

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