Does tennis have a problem with doping?

Below is an article I wrote back in February 2012 that was originally published on my previous website. A few people have requested that I re-upload it, so here it is in full…

The unseemly ongoing row between French TV station Canal+ and the Spanish Tennis Federation over the former’s insinuations of the latter nation’s doping issues are a lighthearted view of what could be a ticking time bomb in tennis.

I say lighthearted, but the depiction of Rafa Nadal as a muscular puppet signing papers with a syringe and filling his car’s gas tank up with his own urine leaves little to the imagination and may yet escalate into a legal argument.

But it has pushed a serious issue to the forefront of people’s minds, at least for the moment in the fortnight that we have seen high profile cyclists Alberto Contador and Jan Ullrich banned for doping offences.

When discussing drugs in cycling, most people’s reaction is a cynical roll of the eyes, so widely held is the belief that the majority of competitors are likely to be ‘juiced’ from the sheer amount of cases witnessed in recent years.

And it has been announced recently that London 2012 will incorporate the most stringent doping tests ever seen to discourage the use of banned substances in this year’s Olympics.

But what about tennis? Mention drug abuse in tennis and most casual observers will struggle to name a well-known tennis star who has been the subject of a doping offence involving performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).

That in turn leads to the assumption that tennis is pretty much completely free of the scourge of drug cheats and combined with the well documented grumblings from the players via social media about the ‘constant’ doping tests they must undergo, then the façade is complete.

But dig just a little deeper into the facts about tennis drug testing and you find that the ITF’s most recent disclosures on anti-doping leave rather a lot to be desired and sizeable opportunities do exist for players to enhance their performances.

During 2009, there were just 2,126 tests undertaken by the ITF for the entire calendar year of both men’s and women’s tennis.

Of those 2,126 tests just 135 were blood tests and none of those 135 were out-of-competition tests, plus during 2009 only 21 tests were specifically undertaken for Erythropoietin (EPO – used to increase the red blood cell count and enhance oxygen uptake and utilization) for all of the players for the entire year.

So, the likelihood of a tennis player getting caught with EPO in his or her system during 2009 was extremely slim and given that EPO clears the athlete’s system within a day, the amount and frequency seems wholly inadequate.

In 2010, the ITF opted to only release a summary of their testing, rather than a detailed analysis, but the total number of tests actually fell to 2,075 in the year 2010.

For those not clued up about doping, there are several performance enhancing drugs that are not detectable through urine tests and require a blood test to discover their presence.

According to the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA), blood tests are the best way to find banned substances in players’ systems and 150 tests of that nature per year (2010 stats) appears woefully inadequate.

To only take 10 blood tests out-of-competition, when players are most likely to be building up their bodies for the forthcoming tournaments, is surely a major oversight and could be related to the cost of such a regime.

WADA has issued a directive to signatories of it’s code, of which tennis is one, to increase the amount of blood tests, yet a WTA memo dated December 5th, 2011 clearly states the following.

“In 2012, player test samples may include urine samples, blood samples, or both. However, no blood samples will be taken while a player is in-competition unless the test is collected after a player’s last match, withdrawal, or default or if a player is a no-show at a tournament.”

So, the players on the WTA Tour know that this year they won’t be blood tested until they lose a match or win the tournament, which is good to know if you intend to cheat.

The ITF’s yearly doping budget around $1.5 million – a drop in the ocean when compared to cycling’s $16 million budget, which is catching more offenders by far than tennis, as recent developments have highlighted.

This could, of course, be because cycling by its very nature as an endurance sport is more likely than tennis to attract its competitors to products that aid recovery and stamina and there may not be a problem in tennis at all. But how do we know without adequate testing? And is tennis not becoming much more endurance based thanks to the slowing down of the courts?

How is it that the obviously less physically demanding sport of table tennis had 12 anti-doping rule violations in the year 2010 compared with just three in tennis? (Source: WADA statistics)

But back to the testing itself and a quick glance at the 2009 stats reveals that by and large at Grand Slams, players weren’t tested in the tournament until they were eliminated, which concurs with the WTA’s memo.

This means that using the 2009 Men’s Australian Open champion as an example, Rafa Nadal was tested only once in the tournament – after he’d played seven matches on the 2nd February in an event that began play on the 19th January.

Given that some recovery and stamina-aiding drugs, such as synthetic testosterone can clear the body within 12 hours there is surely every opportunity for cheating to take place within a major tournament – and many more opportunities at the smaller events.

If you know there’s a very good chance that a player will reach the latter stages of a tournament without being tested, where’s the deterrent in that policy?

And a cross-check with the 2009 ATP calendar shows that in total that year there was no testing of any kind undertaken at an astonishing 41 of the ATP’s World Tour tournaments that year and that’s without considering the Challenger events, other events and the WTA Tour.

And they weren’t all minor events either. There was no testing of any kind during the ATP Masters 1000 events in both Cincinnati and Montreal in 2009. Indeed the Rogers Cup took place without any testing in both 2009 and 2010.

Furthermore, is it a deterrent to be allowed to miss two out-of-competition tests in an 18-month period without incurring any kind of penalty, which is the current rule?

Miss three and the player is suspended, but given the tiny number of out-of-competition tests undertaken in 2009, how likely is it that a player would miss three of them in that timeframe?

Let’s hope for the sake of the sport that when the latest statistics are revealed by the ITF – if they are revealed in any kind of fullness – that the testing has been considerably more stringent.