Is tennis really the cleanest sport in the world?

The stadium scene.
July 1 2009 6:22 PM

Steroids, Anyone?

Tennis is one of the few sports that hasn't been tainted by doping scandals. Can any sport possibly be that clean?

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The most serious doping agent of all isn't even on tennis's radar. "EPO is the problem," Jim Courier told Newsweek in 1999, referring to erythropoietin, a blood-boosting drug that became ubiquitous in cycling in the 1990s. "I have pretty strong suspicions that guys are using it on the tour. I see guys who are out there week in and week out without taking rests. EPO can help you when it's the fifth set and you've been playing for four-and-a-half hours."

When I brought Courier's concerns to Dr. Stuart Miller, the ITF official in charge of anti-doping, he said that no tennis player has ever tested positive for EPO. "I'd love to see the evidence on which he based that," Miller says. "If he's got some good personal evidence to bring forward, I'd love to see that; and if he's got scientific evidence, I'd love to see that as well." (Courier declined to comment further.)

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One reason for the lack of positive tests might be that tennis doesn't really test for EPO. According to the ITF's statistics, it conducted a grand total of 20 EPO tests in 2008, all at major tournaments. One player was tested for EPO at the Australian Open, three at the U.S. Open, and none at Wimbledon. Zero.

"It may be that tennis is not conducive to EPO," says the ITF's Miller. "Maybe tennis is not a sport that is driven by a need to maximize stamina, which is what EPO essentially does." Nonsense, says WADA director general David Howman. "It has been the drug of choice by the cheaters over the last six to seven years. I think EPO has advantages in all sorts of ways, to anybody, in any sport. The days when we thought it was only helpful for endurance sports are long gone."

To be sure, tennis did manage to test its major stars for EPO last year—Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, and Andy Murray got tested once each, all at the Paris Open in October. But EPO is almost never used in competition and remains detectable for only a week or less, says Don Catlin, former head of the UCLA anti-doping lab. Its training benefits last much longer than that. Generic EPO is now available all over the world; in many countries, like Spain and Switzerland, you can buy it over the counter.

Miller argues that tennis, a sport that requires power and stamina and speed, "doesn't lend itself to any one particular kind of performance enhancement." That's one way to look at it; another would be to say that tennis might reward all forms of performance enhancement. Tennis, as much as any other major sport, demands a combination of power and endurance: It's like taking batting practice while running—or sprinting—a marathon. It's difficult to think of a sport where performance-enhancing drugs could help an athlete more.

Under pressure from new WADA rules, which require athletes to report their whereabouts every single day of the year (to the great annoyance of Nadal, among others), tennis plans to step up its out-of-competition testing this year. Tennis players are also subject to testing by the anti-doping agencies of their home countries. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency visited 19 tennis players last year, including the Williamses and Andy Roddick. But compare that with the testing regime imposed upon Olympic mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop, who earns maybe one-tenth of a percent what Roddick does yet got tested 24 times in 2008. Also consider that USADA is much more rigorous than other anti-doping agencies around the world. How strictly you're drug-tested as an athlete depends not only on what sport you play, but where you happen to have been born, which hardly seems fair.

Why does tennis remain so lax when it comes to drug testing? Perhaps it's taking a lesson from the other major sporting event taking place this weekend: the Tour de France. Cycling, baseball, and track and field are the sports that have been the most stained by drug cheats. They're also the sports that have the most-rigorous testing programs. Based on recent evidence, it's not realistic to expect top-flight athletes to be clean. It is possible, though, to simply sweep the syringes under the rug—or better yet, not look for them in the first place.

Bill Gifford has written for Outside, Wired, Men's Health, and other magazines. He is working on a book about the future of medicine.

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