Break point

ON A RAINY WEDNESDAY at the U.S. Open in September, a tired but elated Sara Errani took her seat at a routine news conference, having just clinched a spot in the semifinals during her stunning rise from 45th to sixth in the world rankings. But her mood changed quickly when a reporter asked the 25-year-old Italian a pointed question: Would she cut ties with her physician Luis Garcia del Moral?

If del Moral's name doesn't ring a bell, that's because the Spanish doctor is better known as one of cycling's most prolific drug pushers, the man implicated in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's case against Lance Armstrong and his team. But until recently, the former U.S. Postal Service team physician doubled as the house doctor at a prominent tennis academy in Valencia.

The International Tennis Federation has barred del Moral from its sport, and Errani says she has since severed all ties with him. But the common link has launched much broader speculation about doping in tennis. Within weeks of the Armstrong verdict, Andy Murray told London's Daily Mail that tennis should beef up its testing program. Roger Federer quickly joined in, adding, "Whatever the number [of tests] is, I do not think it's enough."

Indeed, the ITF's drug-testing policy appears woefully weak. The ITF tests randomly throughout the year, but it relies much more heavily on in-competition tests. Last year, it used its $1.6 million anti-doping budget to conduct just 21 offseason blood tests -- 10 percent of its total. And as recently as 2009, it did not conduct any out-of-competition blood tests.

When it comes to the ITF's policy, it also appears that not all players are created equal. The policy makes it possible to target players the federation has reason to suspect, which may explain why Errani was subject to at least seven prematch tests in 2011, tied for the most among all players.

Now ITF drug czar Stuart Miller is strongly considering a "biological passport" program like the one in cycling, which uses a baseline reading to judge subsequent blood tests. But he estimates it will take at least a year to get the program up and running. In the meantime, cycling's doping troubles will continue to cast a shadow in tennis. In January, Eufemiano Fuentes, another prominent Spanish doctor, will stand trial in Madrid on charges that he ran a widespread doping ring. Rafael Nadal, who was mentioned in a 2006 European news report as one of Fuentes' clients, has denied a connection -- and there has been no evidence that he has used banned substances. Still, the knee injury that caused him to miss the heavily drug-tested Olympics has helped stoke conspiracy theories.

Such speculation may be unfair to players, but with the Australian Open still six weeks away and the Armstrong case still fresh in fans' minds, it's open season on offseason testing protocols.

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