Tennis' lackluster drug testing
Before he won his eighth French Open title on June 9, Rafael Nadal was asked how many times he'd been drug tested. According to an account by The Associated Press, Nadal "bristled" at the question before offering his opinion that tennis is a "very clean sport" and said, "We don't have a lot of cases of doping."
Left unsaid was that tennis doesn't have a lot doping cases because it doesn't do a lot of testing. The International Tennis Federation ordered just 63 out-of-competition blood tests last year, compared to more than 3,000 that were performed in the sport of cycling. (When all tests were included, the 611 players were tested 2,185 times, or 3.3 times per player, compared to an average of nine times per rider in cycling.)
But that's only part of the problem facing a sport in which the players are more powerful than ever and able to demand pay hikes, such as the 40 percent raise that will go into effect next week at Wimbledon.
The bigger issue is that tennis seems almost comically ill-suited to police its globally growing brand these days.
In the wake of a betting scandal several years ago, the ITF, which broadly manages the sport and runs Olympic tennis, commissioned a report that found the sport was "experiencing threats to [its] integrity from a range of issues." After much handwringing, the ITF decided to form an integrity unit to help protect the group from "corrupt practices" around the world.
But thanks to woeful funding and a ridiculous structure in which the unit is co-managed by the men's and women's leagues, the ATF and WTA, as well as the Grand Slams, it hasn't produced a single headline case yet.
The best it can offer are match-fixing bans, such as the ones it issued this month against a 789th-ranked Russian and a 23-year-old Dutchman listed at No. 1,158. Personally, I think that if you can get anyone in Utrecht to bet on you with a ranking below a thousand, you should get to keep whatever you make. But, hey, dat is het leven.*
The point is that no one in the tennis world -- certainly no one in the top 700 -- is scared by any of this. The ITF currently requires its players to submit whereabouts forms that list where they will be three months in advance. But they seem to be rarely used, and, at least in the top ranks, a sore point. Novak Djokovic revealed in January that he hasn't been randomly blood tested in the prior six or seven months. "It was more regular … two, three years ago. I don't know the reason why they stopped it," he said.
"To do the job to the full extent, you need to tackle the higher-profile people and not just the lesser players," a veteran anti-corruption agent told Britain's Daily Mail on Sunday last week.
Precisely because the ITF hasn't fished in those deep waters, it doesn't wield much clout on the international stage. Take the case of Eufemiano Fuentes, the notorious Spanish sports doctor who was busted in 2010 for running a doping ring on the isle of Gran Canaria. When Fuentes admitted to helping tennis players, Stuart Miller, the ITF's representative on the integrity unit, asked Spanish officials to release the patient logs they seized from his practice. Miller was met with an indifferent shrug.
"We'd like to see if the alleged links are true, but our request to the Spanish authorities has not been met," says Miller, who does double duty as head of the ITF's drug testing program.
It's hard not to compare that with the aggressive way Major League Baseball is pursuing the South Florida clinic owner, Tony Bosch.
When the Miami New Times published records in January appearing to show that Bosch supplied PEDs to two dozen players, MLB went into investigative overdrive, filing a civil suit against Bosch, seeking information that eventually brought the cash-strapped clinic owner to the table to cooperate. The league's attorneys also issued subpoenas to Federal Express, AT&T and T-Mobile for Bosch's shipping and phone records.
To be fair, the doping cases aren't exactly identical. MLB had specific patient records to guide them in their case against Bosch. The ITF, on the other hand, has to deal with a Spanish judge who seems determined to cover up the Fuentes case at all costs. When the doctor finally came to trial this spring in Madrid, Judge Julie Patricia Santamaria sparked outrage by ordering the destruction of 211 athlete's blood bags from the doctor's clinic that the World Anti-Doping Agency desperately wanted to test. (The chief prosecutor's office in Madrid is appealing that decision and the suspended sentence that Santamaria gave Fuentes after finding him guilty of endangering public health.) Considering that doping scandals flare every other week in Olympic and pro sports, it would be naïve to assume it's not happening in tennis -- a grueling global sport in which the endurance bar has never been higher. But tennis is so fractured, no one has the power to do what Bud Selig is doing in MLB, which has redefined his reputation by going after his sport's biggest names.
There are signs of changes at the margins, however. The ITF has hired a new integrity director from London's Metropolitan Police, Nigel Willerton. And thanks to a groundswell among the sport's most powerful players for better testing, he's about to get an important new tool.
By the end of the year -- perhaps as early as the U.S. Open -- Miller plans to unveil a biological passport program, like the one currently used in cycling, that should bring some fairness to the equation. The idea is to require players to supply baseline physiological profiles that all future drug tests can be measured against.
Miller anticipates giving the top players at least three random blood tests a year, in addition to the less comprehensive, more predictable urine tests that are done before and after each event. "This is a very important step and I'm close to working out all the details," Miller said last week.
Hopefully the next time Rafa says "We have a very clean sport," he'll have more evidence to back it up.
*C'est la vi in Dutch.