With the world taking a hard look at drug use in sports, it’s logical to wonder if this could go undetected for so many years — under some of the most stringent testing program in sports — where else could performance-enhancing drugs be hiding?
The Testing Regime
Tennis is estimated to spend $1.3 million annually on its respectable, if not top-of-the-line, anti-doping program — about one-third of what the cycling association spends. The ITF is in charge of the operation, with substantial funding contributed by the ATP and WTA tours. About 2,000 tests are conducted every year, and top players can expect to be tested about 10 times per year.
The main criticism of the program relates to out-of-competition and blood testing, particularly the decline in the number of blood tests over the past few years. In 2011, there were 195 out-of-competition urine tests and 131 blood tests (including 21 out of competition). That was down from 195 blood tests in 2006 and 2007, though all were in competition; out-of-competition blood testing did not begin until 2010.
Another problem is predictability. Although specific data is not available, player reports of when they are tested suggest strongly that most in-competition tests are after matches, usually losses; leaving significant windows for when testing is unlikely. Additionally, all the years for which data is available indicate that in-competition blood testing is conducted only at Grand Slams.
Blood tests are necessary to detect the use of human growth hormone (HGH) and certain types of blood doping. Out-of-competition testing guards against use during training, the benefits of which continue after the substances have cleared the body.
Policing HGH remains a significant challenge. However, Christiane Ayotte, Director of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s accredited laboratory in Montreal (where the majority of samples from tennis have been tested for over a decade) says that despite all the focus on out-of-competition tests, in-competition testing has improved drastically and can detect substances like EPO, even if taken in micro-doses (involving small amounts that clear the body in hours).
The timing of a test is far more important than whether the sample is taken in or out of competition, especially for the three products that pose the biggest anti-doping challenge.
“Testosterone, EPO, growth hormone — these are natural substances,” Ayotte said. “When testosterone is taken orally, it can be detected for only 15, 20 hours. Same thing for micro-doses of EPO, HGH. Such a short window of detection. This is the difficulty.”
Success in tennis depends on a balance of talent and technical skills as well as fitness and strength, so doping has been regarded as having a more limited potential impact than it would in some other sports. But even a small edge can go a long way in a game in which the margins between players — and victory and defeat — are slim.
Although Richard Ings, who headed the ATP’s anti-doping program from 2001 to 2005, says “estimating how much doping takes place in any sport is a guess,” he emphasized that “the ability to recover quickly from injury or long matches, the ability to have extra stamina for long matches, the ability to play more tournaments each year — all will have a significant benefit to that player” and would provide a boost in “ranking, earning capacity and length of career.”
However, most tennis players do not have the kind of medical personnel on the road with them that cycling teams do, which would make it difficult to use sophisticated and extensive doping the way Armstrong reportedly did. Fellow competitors are also not in private areas before and after matches, but in close proximity in locker rooms, treatment areas and players areas. That makes it harder to conceal surreptitious activity during these times.
Tennis and doping
In 1985, tennis was the first sport to institute regular drug testing, initially for recreational substances. Several top players from the 1970s to ’90s have admitted to recreational drug use at one time or another, but not to deliberately using doping products. Most positive tests have involved low-ranked players, but there have been significant names like Petr Korda and Mariano Puerta. But Puerta’s test was in 2005 (Korda’s was in the late ’90s), and the anti-doping program continues to be dogged by the observation that it hasn’t hooked a big fish since then.
Instead, the most high-profile cases have involved the cocaine positives by Martina Hingis and Richard Gasquet. Gasquet grabbed headlines with his “kissing” defense, which was nevertheless solid enough for an independent tribunal to give him a minimal penalty. In many cases, players have attributed their positive tests to prescriptions, emergencies, contamination or accidental ingestion — some credibly, others questionably.
“We’re working hard to try to increase the proportion of out-of-competition testing, and particularly blood testing, and we’ve been working on that for a while,” ITF anti-doping Head Stuart Miller told the Associated Press at the end of last year. “I’m hopeful that by the end of the year, we’ll have made some inroads into improving that.”
He also added, “We are looking very, very carefully at an athlete biological passport program in tennis.”
This would involve ongoing monitoring of various medical indicators, like hemoglobin levels, that could be a sign of doping. The system, already in place in cycling and track and field, also has the potential to pick up an increasing number of substances over time and develop detection of new doping techniques.