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.

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.)

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.)

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.

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