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?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

The year in sports drug scandals has been pretty typical thus far: A-Rod and Manny have both been busted, Barry Bonds is set to go on trial for perjury, the Olympic gold medalist in the men's 1,500 meters was stripped of his title, and the usual handful of Tour de France riders have been sidelined for drugs before the race even begins. The scandal of the moment in tennis, meanwhile, involves poor Richard Gasquet, the 23rd-ranked French player who this April allegedly tested positive for … cocaine. Gasquet was shocked, of course. His friends protested his innocence, including Rafael Nadal, who said, "I'm certain that he's not taking anything." Nadal added helpfully, "If you kiss a girl who's taken cocaine, anything can happen, and that's the truth."

Cocaine is taken seriously in tennis; one positive test can end your career. Just ask Martina Hingis, who tested positive after losing at Wimbledon two years ago and tearfully quit the sport. Gasquet is looking at a likely two-year suspension. But regardless of whether or not you think he might have put something up his nose, the real shocker is that Gasquet got caught at all. Tennis fans nurture a quaint, almost archaic faith that their sport remains as pure as Roger Federer's snazzy whites. While the rest of the sporting world morphs into something resembling pro wrestling, tennis upholds the gentlemanly image of a game untouched by the steroids, blood-boosters, stimulants, and other doping practices that have become almost universal in athletics. How has tennis maintained its pristine reputation? Because the sport's anti-doping program is a joke.

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The International Tennis Federation's testing program hasn't caught any significant drug cheats because it's practically designed that way. According to the ITF's own statistics, tennis's governing body conducted just over 2,000 drug tests last year. Even if you consider that this covers more than 1,000 ranked players, as well as wheelchair tennis players, it still sounds like a lot of testing. But look more closely, and you'll see some Jaws-size holes in the net.

Consider the timing of the tests. Nearly all of tennis's drug testing was conducted during competitions—major tournaments like the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon. But most doping activity occurs during training, not actual competition. Steroids enhance the effects of a workout while other drugs help with recovery. And most commonly used doping agents remain detectable in the body for only a few days.

Sports like cycling and track and field—which have had far worse drug problems than tennis—figured out long ago that it's best to test athletes outside competition. But last year, tennis performed just 91 out-of-competition tests. The International Cycling Union, by contrast, did more than 2,000 such tests. 

Not a fair comparison? Perhaps. But consider the Operation Puerto doping scandal, which broke in Spain three years ago. Spanish police raided the offices of Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes, a Madrid gynecologist, and discovered that a good number of his clients were actually male athletes who allegedly used his services to boost their performances through complicated (and frightening) regimes of EPO, steroids, hormones, and blood transfusions. After Fuentes' arrest, he complained of "selective leaks" and told the press that—along with more than 50 top professional cyclists—the rest of his 200 athlete clients included soccer players, track-and-field athletes, and tennis stars. The ITF promptly issued a statement claiming that it had been assured by Spanish investigators that "no players, Spanish or foreign, are under investigation." Aside from a handful of cyclists, the names of Fuentes' clients have still not been released, and the matter has been balled up in the Spanish courts for three years.

Doping is hardly unknown in tennis. There have been scattered steroids cases over the years—which shouldn't surprise anyone who's noticed that today's players are far more muscular than their forebears. Even John McEnroe admitted taking corticosteroids during his career, but tennis had barely begun testing for performance enhancers when he retired in 1991. In 2002 and 2003, eight ATP players tested positive for nandrolone, including top British player Greg Rusedski. Rusedski, who charged that more than 40 top players had shown elevated levels of the substance, was cleared when it turned out that the nandrolone came from a contaminated supplement given to him by ATP trainers. (The other seven, who were not named, were also cleared.)

Another notable nandrolone case involved Czech player Petr Korda, who tested positive after the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 1999. Korda protested his innocence and managed to avoid a ban—a pattern that continues today. Time after time, tennis players who test positive for known doping agents such as salbutamol (found in asthma inhalers) and modafinil (also known as Provigil, a well-known stimulant), as well as common masking agents like HCT, have had their suspensions reduced well below the World Anti-Doping Agency's recommended two years. Cocaine cases like Gasquet's, on the other hand, almost always lead to two-year bans, despite the drug's relative lack of performance-enhancing benefits. (One of the few players who got caught taking steroids and did serve hard time was Sesil Karatantcheva, a female Bulgarian player who tested positive for nandrolone in 2005, drawing a two-year suspension. She was 16 years old.)

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