When Maria Sharapova slunk off court after a humbling 6-4, 6-1 loss to Serena Williams in this year’s Australian Open, few would have considered the performance to have been enhanced by prohibited substances. As she approached the lectern for her press conference, most of those present would have had a career obituary ready to fire off to their editors upon the announcement of an injury or retirement. Instead, Sharapova, dressed in black, sombrely informed the world she had tested positive for a performance enhancing drug (PED) and in doing so performed a public service by bringing a new word to everyone’s vocabulary: Meldonium, tennis’s metatarsal.
The reaction has been mixed. Many have come out in support of Sharapova, whose defence has been that it was just a mistake. Serena Williams has suggested she showed ‘courage’, Djokovic hopes she comes back ‘stronger’ and many fans have given her messages of support. Offering their own ‘unbiased’ commentary, the drug’s inventor has speculated that athletes will die without Meldonium, ignoring the fact that athletes can apply for Therapeutic Usage Exemptions should they have a genuine need for a banned substance. However, former player world number one Jennifer Capriati was less supportive and Dick Pound, the founder and former head of the World Anti-Doping Authority (Wada) maintained that Sharapova was ‘reckless’.
At the fringes of fandom, a few cynics will have been surprised by the announcement for a different reason—not because Sharapova had been taking something she should not have, but because she was actually caught doing so. Whatever the ins and outs of this particular case and its ramifications for other athletes, it could be a game-changer for the perception of tennis. Sharapova joins a growing list of prominent tennis players (Victor Troicki, Marin Cilic, and Barbora Styrcova) who have tested posted for PEDs in the last few years. Confidence in sporting bodies must be at an all time low after a litany of scandals and the spotlight was already on tennis authorities for their handling of match-fixing issues. But Maria Sharapova is one of the biggest names in the sport and this will inevitably lead to examination of the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) anti-doping procedures. And the ITF should be worried.
The Tennis Anti-Doping Programme: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics?
For years the ITF has attempted to give the impression that tennis as a sport not only remains untainted by doping problems but also that tennis players would not gain any benefit from such behaviour. As a result, some questionable statements have been made by leading figures from the ITF. For example, one might suspect that Sharapova’s ‘procedural blunder’ defence will be looked upon kindly by an institute whose recently retired president―the wonderfully named Francesco Ricci Bitti―said in 2005 that ‘many [doping] cases are due to simple ignorance by the players’. In front of a French inquiry held in 2013, he described doping as an ‘aide indirecte’, alluding to the nonsensical idea that physical prowess is only incidental to a tennis player’s ability to win matches. However, the head of the ITF’s anti-doping programme, Stuart Miller, has taken such statements to another level, saying in 2009: ‘It may be that tennis is not conducive to EPO [erythropoietin] … Maybe tennis is not a sport that is driven by a need to maximise stamina, which is what EPO essentially does’ and ‘[tennis] doesn’t lend itself to any one particular kind of performance enhancement’.
Such wilful blindness to the advantages of physical improvement in tennis seems to have informed the ITF’s anti-doping policy. At Wimbledon in 2008 we witnessed one of the greatest matches of all time in which Rafael Nadal finally knocked Roger Federer off his extremely high pedestal. This was also a year in which the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme (TADP) conducted not one out-of-competition (OOC) blood test. The same is true in 2009, before a marked change in policy saw 10 OOC blood tests conducted in 2010 and 21 in 2011. In the year of Federer’s last grand slam victory, 2012, this had risen to 63. While there can be no doubt progress has been made here—in 2015 there were 1658 such tests—the recent history of anti-doping in tennis is full of such irregularities.
To explore these irregularities we can examine the ITF’s own statistics. In times gone by, the ITF would publish a list of each test it had undertaken, including the details of the tournament, the player, the date and the type of test. Nowadays, the statistics released are far less transparent but the 2008 and 2009 datasets remain. If you have time to kill, you can compare these dates with tournament match-ups and a pattern quickly emerges. The aforementioned 2008 Wimbledon final took place on the 6th July and, looking at the statistics, one can find that both players were subjected to urine and blood tests after the match. In fact, the 2008 and 2009 TAPD Statistics are almost perfectly in sync with the results from Grand Slams. Thus, the day that Serena Williams threatened to shove a tennis ball down the throat of a US Open linesperson during her loss to Kim Clijsters, 12th September 2009, is also the day of her solitary drug test for the tournament.
There do appear to be some discrepancies from this ‘exit-based’ testing system, but the synchronicity is clearly apparent. An anti-doping programme that is predictable is not an anti-doping programme that seeks to catch people. For example, taking microdosages of EPO means it can take just hours before it becomes undetectable in urine. If, as a player, you are sure you will not be tested until you lose a match you can aid your recovery every night with impunity. In recent days Heather Watson and Belinda Bencic have strongly implied that this testing methodology continues to this day, with the latter saying: ‘My last test was in the Australian Open, after when I lost, like always … If you keep playing [in a tournament], they are not going to test you [when you win]. I think they can but it’s normally when you lose and you have more time and they do the drug test.’ It may be such policies which led Dick Pound in 2012 to query whether the anti-doping programme for tennis, and some other sports, was ‘actually designed to succeed or designed to fail and merely cover their butts’.
More questions emerge from the 2008 and 2009 TADP data. Let us consider OOC tests. For these to be effective you would imagine they would need to be both widespread and evenly conducted over the course of the year to catch players in their off-season training or pre-tournament preparation phases. In 2008 there were 149 OOC tests, meaning players of the calibre of Andy Murray were not troubled OOC by the TADP all year. In the months of January, February, April, May and August not a single OOC was recorded. In 2009, despite improved distribution, there were no OOC tests in January, and just one in February. This means that for both the 2008 and 2009 Australian Open there was no monitoring prior to the tournament by the TADP. The same goes for Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2008. There is a caveat to this: national anti-doping agencies will also test players who fall under their jurisdiction. However, even with a reliable agency like the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) this does not substantially increase the number of tests. For example neither of the Williams sisters were tested by USADA in 2009.
A Lack of Transparency
On its own this would appear suspicious enough. Yet further curiosities emerge. At the bottom of the 2009 TADP document is an additional note: ‘a further 49 out-of-competition missions were conducted where no sample was collected. These included missions that were conducted outside the player’s nominated 60 minute time-slot, or where the athlete was unavailable.’ At this point it must be acknowledged that a missed test for an athlete is not necessarily indicative of doping, and under Wada rules you are allowed to miss three OOC tests over the course of 18 months. Still, 49 missed tests compared with a 154 successfully executed tests is an astonishingly poor hit rate. What is perhaps more surprising is that it appears that the original release of the 2009 statistics included these missed tests, but was subsequently removed from the ITF’s website. The original includes marquee names such as Ivo Karlovic, Rafael Nadal, Serena and Venus Williams, Amelie Mauresmo, Maria Sharapova, Gilles Simon (twice), Andy Roddick, Juan Martin Del Potro, Stanislas Wawrinka, Roger Federer, and Caroline Wozniacki. These are marked by a zero under each testing column: blood, EPO and urine.
With this in mind, looking at the 2008 document raises questions. Why, according to the 2008 document, are there no missed OOC tests at all? Why, at Roland Garros, are there seven dates which suggest that no blood, urine or EPO test were conducted, including on well-known players Ekatarina Makarova and Serena Williams? There are a number of innocent reasons why an OOC may be missed, but to miss a test within a tournament seems to merit explanation. The ITF’s movement from public transparency to opacity is not one which engenders confidence in an organisation and aids speculation that perhaps goes beyond what the evidence is telling us. It does, for example, seem odd that there were apparently these seven missed tests at Roland Garros at 2008, but at no other tournament in 2008 and 2009.
In the spirit of openness, the ITF changed the way it released information from 2010, which explains this article’s initial focus on the previous years. As an example, in 2008, it can be seen that Novak Djokovic was tested 8 times in-competition and twice out-of-competition, along with the dates, the kind of test and the tournament. In 2015, all that can be said is that Djokovic was tested ‘4-6’ times in-competition and ‘7+’ out-of-competition. It should also be highlighted that Djokovic won 11 titles in his stellar year, meaning he was untested for at least 5 tournaments he won. In terms of number of tests this is a marked improvement. However, in terms of openness and the ability to scrutinise tennis’ approach to anti-doping, it is manifestly regressive.
Even if the number of tests is improving and the level of transparency is decreasing there are still questions to be answered. Is it really acceptable that in 2013 the ITF did not test players OOC such as Juan Martin del Potro, Laura Robson, Jelena Jankovic, Lleyton Hewitt, Janko Tipsarevic and Eugenie Bouchard? For British tennis fans who have marvelled at Johanna Konta’s rise in the last year, is it really satisfactory that up to and including 2015 she has never had to submit to an OOC test for the ITF? Again, there is the caveat that some (but not all) national anti-doping authorities may plug some of these gaps: in 2015, UK Anti-Doping conducted a further 15 OOC tests on tennis players for the Lawn Tennis Association, although there are no further details.
It is clear that things have changed since the dark days where OOC blood testing was deemed unnecessary. For example, in 2015, according to the ITF, there were 1,658 OOC blood tests, with 4,433 samples collected in total. But this is dwarfed by the work of another sport stung by a doping crisis: cycling. With a budget of about US$ 6.7m the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation conducted 15,349 tests in total throughout 2014. In contrast, the equivalent funding figure is not, unsurprisingly, published by the ITF, but was estimated as US$ 3.5m in 2013. The 2014 ITF Annual Report and Accounts shows about US$ 3m expenses for its Science and Technical Department which includes ‘Anti-Doping, Technical, Foundation and Sports Science and Medicine Commission costs’, although sadly it is not specified how much has been spent on cartoon production. Whilst it is difficult to compare sports, it is clear that tennis, and not just the ITF, could do more. For example, the owners of the Wimbledon Championship reported an operating profit of £56.1 million, which suggests the money exists within the sport.
The lack of accountability for athletes has led to unsubstantiated rumours, speculation and more cartoons. It is difficult to blame people for such ruminating when a situation arises like that of Marin Cilic. Initially, Cilic cited an injury for pulling out of Wimbledon in June 2013. In fact he had accepted a provisional suspension as a result of an adverse finding. The public only discovered as much when the decision by the ITF was released on 16th September. The problem is that if Cilic had not been found to have committed an anti-doping violation the public may never have known that this was a fake injury. This is because the TADP’s rules (8.8.5) (in accordance with those of Wada) state that: ‘If the Player or other Person is exonerated of all charges, then the decision may only be Publicly Disclosed with the consent of the Player or other Person who is the subject of the decision. In the absence of such consent, the confidentiality of the decision shall be strictly maintained by all parties’. This may explain the trend for surgery selfies, as otherwise how are tennis fans meant to know if an injury was ever really an injury?
For too long the lack of concerted journalistic questioning has let such unusual incidents pass largely without clamour. Incidents such as a Serena Williams’ missed drugs test. Or when Richard Gasquet’s defence of a positive cocaine test matched Rafael Nadal’s speculation on the incident: ‘if you kiss a girl who’s taken cocaine, anything can happen, and that’s the truth’. Or even Novak Djokovic’s belief that bread against his skin has much the same effect as Samson suffered when Delilah removed his hair. Consider too one Luis Garcia del Moral, a doctor involved in the Lance Armstrong cycling scandal, who, according to the ITF, ‘has worked with various tennis players’, one of whom is former world number one, Sara Errani, who described Dr Moral as ‘the best doctor in Valencia for everything’. Others names have been linked with Dr Moral.
Finally, the biggest looming cloud over tennis is the case of Operation Puerto, in which the offices of Dr Eufemiano Fuentes were raided in 2006 by Spanish Police who discovered anabolic steroids, bags of blood and machines for transfusion. Although the case largely revolved around cyclists, Dr Fuentes has claimed that some of his patients were tennis players. Initially a Spanish judge ruled that the blood bags be destroyed on privacy grounds (much to the anger of Andy Murray), but now these bags and their owners are in limbo, pending appeals from Wada and others. Those appeals should be resolved by now and could, potentially, make the Sharapova case a minor footnote for 2016 and doping in tennis.
The Next Step
For some, doping is not actually a bad thing. Without wishing to delve too deeply into a debate worthy of its own article, the question is somewhat moot given the current laws of tennis. It should also be noted that Maria Sharapova was the highest earning female athlete in 2015, and if it were to turn out the Meldonium was not her only guilty pleasure then this would be money earned under false pretences. Whilst the moral hazard of doping might not compare to other sporting scandals, it is still cheating for money. As things stand, doping can destroy a sport’s credibility, and that is the true casualty of the ITF’s meagre efforts to catch drug cheats. All the names mentioned in this article, and the majority of tennis players, may never have even considered taking PEDs. But without an effective (in as much as this is possible) anti-doping programme, all the great matches in the wonderful era of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and the Williams sisters are not above suspicion.
This may well be why some players have become quite vocal over recent years. Federer has gone on record saying that ‘naivety says that tennis is clean’ and, in what many have seen as a coded message, that tennis should ‘maybe keep samples as well for a long period of time so you can go back and punish those players’. Djokovic, not always a cheerleader in such matters, stated in 2013: ‘I wasn’t tested with blood for last six, seven months. It was more regular in last two, three years ago. I don’t know the reason why they stopped it’. Andy Murray wants more testing and tougher regulations and has called recently for more money to be spent. As of September 2015 there is a new ITF president, David Haggerty, and he needs to acknowledge all these problems or tennis players, fans and journalists must hold him to account.
Much of this information has been found through the exhaustive and ongoing blog http://tennishasasteroidproblem.blogspot.co.uk/