NEW YORK – In the last few years, tennis has spent millions on its anti-doping efforts. Officials have extolled its tough drug testing policies. In 2013, it introduced a biological passport system to help catch drug cheats.
“We believe we have a good program,” Francesco Ricci Bitti, the president of the International Tennis Federation, has said.
But a loophole has remained ajar right in the sport’s backyard: the U.S. Open.
Each year, the United States Tennis Association, which owns and operates the Open, awards a main draw wild card to the boys’ and girls’ 18-and-under national champions. Winners are not drug tested.
Most of these teenage champions are elite juniors. Some are already professional, like this year’s 18-and-under boys’ champion, Frances Tiafoe. In theory, they have undergone drug testing due to their participation in pro events or top-level ITF junior tournaments, such those at the four majors, known as “junior Grand Slams."
But some fall through the cracks.
Jack Sock, a Nebraska native who went undefeated in high school, earned a U.S. Open main draw wild card when he won the 18-and-under USTA National Championship at Kalamazoo, Mich., in 2010.
“I had never been drug tested until I got to New York,” said Sock in a recent interview.
Sock, 22, lost in the first round that year and is now the second highest ranked American man at No. 28. He retired in the fourth set of his second round match against Ruben Bemelmans at the U.S. Open on Thursday after being overcome by the heat.
This year's girls' wild card recipient, Sophia Kenin, said Monday she had never had a doping test in her life. Kenin, 16 and still an amateur, has participated since 2013 in lower-tier ITF pro events and junior Grand Slam competitions, including last year in New York.
“I don’t think it’s such a big deal,” said 778th-ranked Kenin, who lost 6–3, 6–1 to Mariana Duque-Marino of Colombia in the first round.
Tiafoe, 17, who turned pro in April, said he underwent drug tests at junior Slams but not at Kalamazoo, where he beat Stefan Kozlov in five sets last month to earn his main draw wild card.
On Tuesday, following a 7–5, 6–4, 6–3 first-round defeat to No. 22 seed Victor Troicki, he said it made sense to test USTA national champions.
“We’re playing for a lot of money,” Tiafoe said. First-round losers at the U.S. Open take home $39,500.
The same testing gap applies to the U.S. Open National Playoffs. Now in its sixth year, the singles winners of the open-to-all competition earn wild cards into the U.S. Open’s qualifying tournament. No recipient has ever reached the main draw. Doubles and mixed doubles winners receive main draw wild cards.
Dr. Stuart Miller, the head of tennis’ anti-doping program, concedes a loophole exists.
“I’m not too familiar with this event, but if a player wins it having never played in any Junior Circuit event or Junior Grand Slam, then it’s possible that they haven’t been previously tested under the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme,” Miller wrote by email.
Miller said testing for the USTA national championships falls outside of purview of the ITF. It is the responsibility of local governing agencies—in this case, the U.S. Anti-doping Agency (USADA). USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier said he was unaware of testing conducted at the 18-and-under national tournaments. He said anti-doping efforts at these events would be at the discretion of USADA.
“I think that’s a fair point,” he said of the loophole. “It’s something that we should look into.”
As in other sports, USADA complements anti-doping efforts for U.S. athletes that compete in events such as Davis Cup, Fed Cup and the Olympics. It also does other testing. USADA spokesperson Annie Skinner was vague about whether that applied to events such as the USTA national championships. She said because the ITF has jurisdiction over most in-competition testing, USADA is focused on out-of-competition testing.
“USADA has limited resources that must be spread across all of the 50-plus sports we oversee,” Skinner wrote. “We use those resources most effectively by focusing testing on our elite level athletes that are likely to compete at an Olympic or Paralympic level.”
If nothing else, enforcement appears uneven.
Last year, officials barred Andy Roddick from competing in doubles with childhood friend Mardy Fish at the U.S. Open. The retired former No. 1 had not re-entered the anti-doping program for a minimum of three months as required. ATP Tour Board member Justin Gimelstob said the gap should be closed.
“It’s hardly unreasonable to think that a player that’s going to compete in the U.S. Open by winning the junior national championships shouldn’t be subjected to drug testing,” said Gimelstob, a Tennis Channel broadcaster who is coaching American John Isner.
Two previous 18-and-under winners that received main draw wild cards, Christina McHale (2009) and Lauren Davis (2011), agreed with Gimelstob in recent interviews.
“They should be tested,” said 22-year-old Davis, who lost in the second round on Wednesday to No. 13 seed Ekaterina Makarova. “That definitely would not be fair.”
Former pro Gimelstob does not recall being tested when he won at Kalamazoo in 1995. The bony, 6’5” player said that would not have been necessary.
“One look at my body would tell you they didn’t need to drug test me,” he said.