Mailbag: Tennis' flawed anti-doping program
We’ll start this week with a story. A few years ago, I was at an event when a player grabbed me by the wrist. “I want to show you something,” she said. She took me to a wall displaying photos of the event’s previous winners. One player had won the event multiple times. Her photos revealed a remarkably -- how to put this? -- evolved physique over the years, the equivalent of before-and-after images of a toning program.
“There,” the player said. “Now go write about it.”
The implication, of course, was that the past champion had been doping, and these complementary images were unimpeachable proof.
It was a jarring sight. But it was a long way from evidence sufficient to accuse a player of doping -- the most serious and damning charge you could level at an athlete. Per the publically available information on the website of the ITF, which oversees anti-doping, this player had no positive tests. Short of finding her name on a pharmacy mailing list, non-analytic evidence would be hard to come by. Other agents and coaches heard rumors of doping -- “It wouldn't surprise me” was a phrase in heavy rotation -- but had nothing concrete to offer. Time and resources were finite. Like others, I would have my suspicions about this player. But I could not write anything. I would not write anything.
Inasmuch as there are full-time tennis journalists left -- folks devoted full-time to covering the sport -- we’ve all had similar experiences. There are abrupt withdrawals or retirements or ill-explained absences and sudden reappearances that arouse suspicion. There are players with affiliations to disreputable figures. There are physical feats we see with our own eyes that invite skepticism. But…then what? The leap from skepticism to formal accusation is a vast one.
On the eve of the ATP World Tour Finals last week, this piece generated some chatter in TennisLand.
While we can take issue with certain points -- the notion that tennis journalists are turning a blind eye to doping because it’s “a cosy little club where media get access and everyone else gets rich,” would be offensive if it weren’t so damn funny -- it’s worth reading. And it offers occasion to take stock of where we are.
Whether it was naiveté or arrogance, for years, tennis worked on a collective assumption that it was above doping. For whatever plagued the sport, PEDs wasn’t high on the list. That, the thinking went, was the province of track and swimming and cycling. In a technical sport, the muscles occasioned by anabolics weren’t going to help. Players were too transient to have regimens. The tours handed over testing to an independent agency. And, besides, the ITF posted the testing results on its website. In retrospect, this, of course, is as embarrassing as it is wrong. (And I seek no immunity here. I plead guilty of being something less than vigilant. Put it in the wish-we-could-play-a-let column.)
In the last five years or so, much has changed. We know that physical recovery is key, far more than brute strength. We know that doping has outpaced detection. Though none have been stars, we’ve seen tennis players test positive and others (see: Wayne Odesnik) get implicated through non-analytic findings. We’ve seen Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones and Alex Rodriguez -- and the worthlessness of their fierce denials and “clean” tests. Sadly, we’ve read Andre Agassi’s revelation that the ATP buried his positive test, validating those who suspect that tennis administrators have the capacity to cover up for stars. We’ve seen other stars bend rules right to a breaking point; and if pressurized egg chambers and blood-spinning aren't technically illegal, they speak to the lengths athletes will go to gain an incremental advantage. Like those who believed Armstrong was somehow clean while all of his contemporaries had been clipped, it's veers on delusional to believe tennis players are any more moral or less subject to a risk-reward calculus than athletes in virtually every sport.
But mostly what we’ve seen is the inadequacies of tennis’ anti-doping program. After giving the ITF credit for making this public, let’s unpack the numbers from 2013: the total numbers by gender and the testing summary by player.
There were more than 2,700 tests administered in total. But that’s for all players on both tours for a year. And while we know that random, out-of-competition testing is the way to catch cheaters, fewer than 600 tests were out-of-competition. There were former Grand Slam champs who weren’t tested once away from competition. There were past violators who weren’t tested out of competition as well.
The other damning bit of data comes from a ITF different report: the funding.
The anti-doping budget is just north of $2 million, and while it is supposed to hit $3.13 million by 2016, this is still woefully low for an entire sport. (Put another way: the entire annual doping budget for all of tennis is less than the prize money for the Wimbledon champion.) While the biological passport is a welcome addition to detection, it’s unclear what effect that will have on budget.
To use a tennis term, this is lousy court positioning. In effect, this is a no-win situation. No sport wants to see its athletes test positive. But so long as such spotty testing persists, when the sport goes a year without anti-doping news -- when no top players test positive -- its celebration and relief is tempered with doubt. I’m not convinced that tennis has a steroid problem; I am convinced that it has a funding problem.
I know you usually take the high road when it comes to tour gossip, but what is your stance on the most turbulent region of Switzerland -- Fedmirkastan -- ahead of this week’s Davis Cup final? Mirka clearly keeps a very low profile, and I have never seen her do much during matches except bite her nails and very rarely yell out in support of Federer after he wins a crucial point. This suggestion that she was goading Wawrinka or trying to get under his skin is surprising, but very interesting. One account suggested she did the same to Wawrinka at Wimbledon this year during his quarterfinal loss to Federer. Is this something Mirka has been doing vs. other players or is she just prickly with Wawrinka? Do you think Federer can patch this over in time to beat France in the Davis Cup or is his relationship with Wawrinka forever strained? Maybe it only means that 2014 will be the last year Federer will win the best sportsmanship award from his peers!
-- Mike Wherley, Philadelphia
• If nothing else, the “row at the O2” certainly adds a layer of intrigue to this weekend’s Davis Cup action.
What really happened? Who knows? The truth will eventually come out. Or it won’t. But I do know we see this all the time -- and not simply in tennis: in competition and in the moments after, with neurochemistry doing funny things, athletes tend to make regrettable, impulsive decisions. My guess is that if all parties had cooled off for a few moments, this “row” never happens.
To me, the more interesting is discussion is where this falls on the news-gossip continuum. I vote news. And I think John McEnroe is to be commended for reporting it. You have two competitors having a disagreement after a match. It’s job-related, so to speak. The disagreement is on the premises of the event. That they are teammates of an upcoming David Cup final is relevant as well. McEnroe didn't violate the code of the locker room, as someone suggested. He reported relevant news, however unpleasant it may have been. Sunlight, disinfectant and all that.
The Round Robin stage of the World Tour Finals has just concluded with some of the most exciting matches of the year. Highlight reel points one after another. Sensational serving, ridiculous returns, deft touch volleys, impossible gets, inch perfect lobs. Virtually every match included a nerve-wracking tiebreak, most to three sets. What a testament to the amazing skill and fan appeal for our sport!
P.S. It would also be great if you linked to the wonderful article by S.L. Price on the Army basketball player with two Dads in your incomparable "just trust me on this" suggested readings.
-- Jeffrey L., Fort Lauderdale
• Happily. Consider this today’s must read, from S.L. Price. As for the ATP World Tour Finals, you know what it needs? Another year. This was simply a reminder that sports are not scripted programming. Sometimes you get the 2008 Wimbledon final. Sometimes Nadal pulls out and Federer’s back seizes up and the matches are unremarkable. That’s part of the bargain. It never hurts to brainstorm and think ahead. But I would caution against rethinking the entire entertainment proposition. Sometimes you get the Giants-Patriots Super Bowl; sometimes you get Seahawks-Broncos.
We know that Marin Cilic would've qualified for the ATP World Tour Finals, even if he hadn't been in the Top 8, because he'd won a Grand Slam and was inside the Top 20. Does this not apply to doubles? Why didn't Wimbledon champions Jack Sock and Vasek Pospisil make the cut for London as the 10th ranked couple? On this note, would you say the doubles' matches this year at the Finals gave us a bigger thrill, or is that a bit of a stretch?
-- Cristina, New York
• Yes, for everything the WTF lacked -- competitive matches, Rafael Nadal, an actual final -- the doubles was a sleeper hit. It always is. Here’s Greg Sharko on the missing Sock (and Pospisil):
“Pospisil/Sock would have qualified if one of the top 7 teams would have pulled out or Kubot/Lindstedt (Grand Slam Champions 8-20) pulled out. The doubles was exciting and a lot of tight matches. The Bryans lost their opening RR match and then won four in a row. It was also third straight yr the doubles final was decided in a Match TB.”
• We’ll try to keep the icky self-promotion to a minimum, but the Al Michaels books is officially out today: You Can't Make This Up: Miracles, Memories, and the Perfect Marriage of Sports and Television.
• Per your Hall of Fame votes, the (transparent) envelopes please: Mauresmo, Pierce and Kafelnikov are in. Bruguera didn't get the required votes. We shall cast our ballot accordingly.
• For the Indy crowd: Rajeev Ram is holding a charity event for local kids this Friday.
• Tons of great entries in the “Encounters with a Pro” contest (sponsored by Dunlop, unbeknownst to Dunlop). We’ll announce a winner before the end of the year, but here are three honorable mentions:
1) Virginia Slims of Washington c. 1988. Without my parents' knowledge, I skipped school to be a 16-year-old usher at my first real tournament that featured Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles and Zina Garrison. Graf was my childhood idol and I waited patiently in the wings to get a photo with her after her match. "Do it!" she said as I handed my dinky film camera to a ballboy who looked 8-years-old. A few days later and giddy with anticipation, I finally got the photo back. The twerp captured Steffi brilliantly, but I was nowhere to be seen. #fail
-- James Pham of Garland, TX
2) Many years ago I was walking through the Knightsbridge area of London when I noticed two couples walking towards me: a middle-aged couple and a young couple. The middle-aged couple and the young lady were verbally haranguing the young male. He was hunched over, hands in pockets and had a "Get me outta here!" look on his face. As we crossed paths I looked at the young man, smiled and shrugged my shoulders and he responded with the same gestures. It was Stefan Edberg. I don't ask for autographs but I should have turned back and asked him for a signature just to give him a break!
-- Victor Savage
3) I was with some friends in Playa del Carmen in 2010 for my 40th birthday. We were lying on the beach having some drinks when a rowboat neared from the ocean with three people in scuba gear, including one giant. My eagle-eye friend, Michael, said, “Hey isn’t that the Spanish guy that won the U.S. Open?” I turned and said “Yes, but no. His name is Juan Martin del Potro, but he’s Argentinian.” He came out walked to the café just steps from the water and ordered food. I vacillated for 30 minutes before finding the courage to approach him, but I downed a margarita and walked up to him. I knew we shared the same birthday -- September 23rd -- and introduced myself and told him we had the same birthday and he (21 then not 40) asked me if we were the same age. Certainly made my day. He was kind to take a photo and he smiled the entire time. He even took photos with friends who arrived a short while later. Really, really nice guy.
-- Greg Smiley, Johannesburg, South Africa
• Carl Bialik on the great tennis rivalry, Federer vs. Djokovic.
• Thanks, Dana Fitzgerald, for this bit of inspiration.
• Hat tip to Jams B. of PDX, for noting that Wawrinka “would have been justified in giving Federer the double Tommy Robredo at net.”
• After winning the year-end championships in Singapore, Serena Williams will hold the first annunal Serena Williams Ultimate RUN South Beach, a quarter marathon (6.55 miles), 5K Run/Walk and Ultimate KIDS Dash to support the Serena Williams Fund.
• 2014 Family Circle Cup champion and World No. 13 Andrea Petkovic will return to Charleston to defend her title at the 43rd edition of the tournament in April 2015.
• Lookalikes Paul Schneider from Parks and Rec and Roger Federer: