Tom English: Andy Murray’s words on doping important

AT THE end of July, in the wake of another Major League baseball star being done for doping, John McEnroe was asked about the threat of performance-enhancing drugs in tennis and whether his sport was heading for a crisis of its own.

Andy Murray, who voiced the views of many players on the doping issue during the US Open. Picture: Getty

McEnroe was emphatic in his response. “I would say we are one of the cleanest, if not the cleanest, sport when it comes to steroids because of the precautions and testing that is now done,” he said. “I don’t see it being an issue we will have to deal with because of the way tennis is being run these days.”

The way tennis is being run is a subject we could spend an awfully long time talking about, but there is no better way to encapsulate it than referencing Andy Murray’s words to the New York Times last week. Murray, now one of the leading tennis voices in the area of anti-doping, described tennis’s attempts to catch the doping cheats as “pretty useless”. He thinks it is better of late, but up until now it has has been hopeless, he said.

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Murray may have had a dismal US Open but his words on doping were important and impressive. And he is not the only player on tour who has been critical of the way the International Tennis Federation has behaved in all of this. Many others have been. And yet McEnroe carries on with his nonsense about the sport being cleaner than all others.

He has changed his tune over the years, it has to be said. Back in the mid-1980s he was one of the most outspoken players on the subject of steroids in tennis. “You see these guys or girls who come on to the tour talking about their new training programmes and their diets where they eat this or that new thing,” he said in 1984. “But they’ll never tell you about the drugs they took.”

So, in the prehistoric age of doping, he was vigilant and suspicious and now, in an era when the doping products are so sophisticated and pervasive, he sees nothing to worry about. He is saying that, sure, there is doping in baseball and football and cycling and athletics and any number of other sports, but tennis is pure, untouched by the cheats, a beacon of probity amid a world of cynicism. McEnroe has made his reputation as a commentator on account of his insight, but in the area of doping he has become blind.

McEnroe seems to assume that tennis is clean because there has not been a high number of positive tests recorded in the sport. But there is an alternative explanation. World Anti-Doping Agency testing figures for 2012 show that tennis had 3,483 tests last year compared to 27,836 in athletics and 20,624 in cycling.

There are 35 Olympic-registered sports and tennis ranked 18th in their testing, below canoeing and handball. There were just 147 tests directed at tracing Human Growth Hormone and only 767 out-of-competition tests. Dick Pound, former head of WADA, has questioned tennis’s stomach for the fight against doping, saying that he wonders whether they are merely paying lip service to the problem.

Of course, the sport is now introducing biological passports and Murray was quoted recently as saying that, already in 2013, he has been blood-tested more regularly than he has ever been before. That’s good.

What is not good is that the people who oversee tennis’ anti-doping agenda are the same people who virtually dismissed doping as a potential problem in the sport. They’re coming slowly into line with the modern world but there is still suspicion about their commitment. How could there not be, given that it is Stuart Miller who is running the ITF’s anti-doping program. The same Stuart Miller who once said tennis “is not conducive to EPO (Erythropoietin)”.

Tennis, in fact, is ideally suited to EPO and many players would tell him that if he ever cared to listen to them.

McEnroe’s certainty is quite laughable. He will know the case of Wayne Odesnik, the journeyman American player who, in 2010, was caught trying to bring eight vials of Human Growth Hormone plus syringes into Australia ahead of the Australian Open. McEnroe should also know about Odesnik’s links to the Miami clinic run by Tony Bosch, a supplier of doping products to athletes in several sports.

It would be reasonable to assume that Miller and the ITF would have been all over the Bosch scandal, but the impression is that they have not. Miller’s public comments have amounted to a weak reassurance that they are examining how involved tennis players were with Bosch. Beyond that, they have had pretty much nothing to say. It’s the classic half-hearted flim-flam that has become the ITF’s stock-in-trade on the doping issue.

There are Eufemiano Fuentes and Luis Del Moral to consider also. Both doping doctors, both with established links to tennis players, both banned and in disgrace.

Tennis not interested in who these guys worked with and what they gave them? Miller not spoken to Del Moral’s tennis clients? Fuentes said he, too, had tennis players on his books. And there are blood bags to prove it. A Spanish judge ruled that these blood bags, which would tell so much about who took what and when, cannot be examined. Murray, to his eternal credit, tweeted when he heard the ruling that he clearly believed it protected the guilty. He called it the greatest cover-up in the history of sport. What has the ITF said about Murray’s statement? Zero.

McEnroe will have found it impossible to avoid the Marin Cilic affair, an episode that is tennis’ problem in microcosm.

Cilic, a two-times US Open quarter-finalist and a former top-ten player, is said to have failed a dope test in April, a failure that he found out about during Wimbledon, whereupon he withdrew from the tournament citing injury.

Nobody has seen him since. He did not compete at the US Open, an absence that has led people to believe that he has voluntarily stayed away, pending an appeal on his hearing.

The ITF has said nothing about Cilic. Nobody in the sport has confirmed or denied that he has failed a test. Nobody can shed any light on why he was not in New York. Transparency is not a word in the lexicon of the tennis authorities no more than clean is a word that McEnroe can use about his sport in the doping age, not without ridicule at any rate.

Murray may have lost his US Open title but his comments on the threat of doping were a triumph of sorts. He was asked if a sport could be free of suspicion in this age. “I don’t really think it can anymore,” he replied. In his highly influential role as media commentator the world over, McEnroe is forever watching Murray. The hope is that he, and others, don’t just watch but also listen to what he is saying.