Performance-enhancing drugs have been a growing eyesore in sports. From baseball to cycling, increasing allegations of doping have led to stripped titles and asterisks in history books. Tennis has stayed relatively off the radar on the issue as a sport that relies on intelligence and hand-eye coordination more than pure strength, but the game is evolving into a much more physical task. Now, USADA’s report on Lance Armstrong has some parts that the tennis world can’t ignore.
Here are five thoughts on tennis’ relation to doping, why we should care and why reckless speculation gets us nowhere.
1. Implications of the Armstrong report: In its 202-page “Reasoned Decision,” USADA paints a clear picture of how the sophisticated, far-reaching doping ring flourished in cycling, a sport in which endurance and recovery are everything. The doctors who allegedly helped the athletes outwit and out-maneuver testers didn’t dabble solely in the cycling world. Most notably, Dr. Luis García del Moral, one of the alleged masterminds of the doping program, has ties to a tennis academy in Valencia, Spain, where David Ferrer, Sara Errani, Marat Safin and Dinara Safina have trained.
The report also discusses the use of hypoxic chambers to help cyclists fool EPO tests. These are the same hyperbaric chambers that have been used by numerous tennis players, from Novak Djokovic to American Christina McHale. None of this alone means anything, and drawing conclusive links is both dangerous and irresponsible. But they don’t mean nothing either. The Armstrong report puts every sport under the microscope.
2. The facts say tennis isn’t clean: In the last 10 years, the ITF has reported 37 doping cases, according to USA Today. While the cases have generally focused on lower-level players who aren’t household names, it’s still enough to cast a shadow on tennis. Consider, too, the case of Wayne Odesnik, the American who was caught trying to bring HGH into Australia in 2010. The ITF reduced his two-year ban in half, noting Odesnik provided “substantial assistance” in uncovering other offenses. When asked about it at Wimbledon this year, Odesnik vehemently denied ratting anyone out. If you choose not to believe Odesnik, then you buy into the notion that there are more players out there who are doping, that the players know about it and that the ITF, regardless of its testing policies, isn’t catching them.
3. The ITF lacks the resources to keep it clean: It’s easy to be seduced by the idea that tennis players are constantly being monitored. Follow your favorite players on Twitter and complaints about anti-doping tests are common. Andy Murray and Caroline Wozniacki are just two of the high-profile names who have been woken up by testers at their homes to submit to an unannounced test. But as USA Today reports, the testing regime in professional tennis is underfunded, undermanned and insufficient for such an international sport. Robson reports that the ITF’s anti-doping budget is a mere $1.6 million, a paltry figure considering the hundreds of millions of dollars in prize money awarded throughout the year.
For the last four years, the ITF has conducted roughly 2,000 drug tests annually, according to the ITF’s published statistics (2012 numbers are not yet available). The majority of tests occur within competition. All in-and out-of-competition tests are done with no advance notice, said Miller.
Last year 1206 men and 944 women underwent in- and out-of-competition urine and blood tests. For the top 150 ranked players, that works out to about eight per man and six per woman annually. Just 21 were out-of-competition blood tests.
It makes sense from a financial perspective that the majority of testing takes place during tournaments. It’s an easy way to keep the cost of testing low because all the players are on-site. But the doping culture has evolved since the days of simple pill popping the night before a game or injections during competition. The fact that the ITF can’t put in the resources to meaningfully implement out-of-competition testing, with unannounced tests on any given day, is a big problem. You can’t point to a paltry number of positive tests and claim the sport is clean when the testing regime is full of holes. For the integrity of the sport, tennis needs a more thorough and vigilant methodology. Until that day comes, the whispers will continue.
4. Does doping matter?: I was asked this earlier this week and my answer has haunted me ever since. If it were to come out that a high-profile player was doping, would that alter my enjoyment of his or her tennis up to that point? Would my memories of their epic conquests, the thrill I felt watching them compete, suddenly turn sour and cold? My answer at the time was “no,” reasoning that for those few hours on that day I was thoroughly entertained by what I saw and what I saw was something I had never seen before. I thought back to the ’98 home run race and how Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa saved baseball, which had been struggling since the 1994 strike, with every swing of the bat. I still have fond memories of that summer even though I know what I know now. It remains an untainted memory for me, and to be honest, in light of everything we’re supposed to believe — that doping undermines the integrity of sport — my response to my friend’s question worries me.
5. The danger of speculation: It’s impossible to ignore the fact that tennis has been elevated to, at times, a seemingly super-human level. The men, at all levels, are playing a grueling style that leaves fans chugging Gatorade just to keep up. Meanwhile, the women’s game has seen a spike in power and its own share of three-plus-hour marathon matches. After this Armstrong ordeal, it’s tempting for fans and pundits to batten down the hatches and openly speculate as to which players may or may not be doping. No one wants to be fooled again and everyone wants to be the first one to be right.
But if we’re going to operate under the rubric that doping is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, if not the deadly sin in sports, then we have to recognize that throwing around names of suspected dopers with nothing more than an ill-timed muscly action shot as evidence is simply irresponsible. Nothing is gained from watching a sport with that level of unfounded cynicism and the rampant speculation — attaching baseless innuendo to faces — is far more harmful than helpful.