Tom English: Tennis and the anti-doping debate

Wayne Odesnik was playing at Wimbledon this year, despite being caught with drugs in 2010. Picture: AP
Wayne Odesnik was playing at Wimbledon this year, despite being caught with drugs in 2010. Picture: AP
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WheN it comes to the world of tennis, two things leave you gobsmacked.

The majesty of the Murrays and the Djokovics and the Lisickis on one hand and, on the other, the audacity of the people who govern the great game that these athletes play. During the week, Stuart Miller, the anti-doping manager of the International Tennis Federation, gave an interview about the threat of performance-enhancing drugs in his sport and, in its own way, it was every bit as stunning as some of the wondrous things we have seen on Centre Court this past fortnight.

“More testing doesn’t mean better testing,” said Miller, who went on say that tennis has “intelligently targeted” testing, despite there being little or no evidence that the ITF practice what they preach. Miller said that his governing body tries as hard as it can to catch the cheats, which was another statement that left you puzzled. For anybody with even a passing knowledge of tennis knows that the authorities don’t try very hard at all to expose the dopers in their sport. Their efforts are superficial and redolent of the UCI back in the day when they were holding back the tide by claiming cycling was clean.

It was Miller who once said that it may be that tennis “is not conducive to EPO”. He also came up with this pearler a number of years ago and doesn’t seem to have corrected the record since. “You can’t be a great [tennis] player without a significant amount of skill, and that in itself helps tennis be a little more confident that there isn’t widespread abuse of designer substances that we don’t yet know about.”

That would be a brainless thing for a casual observer to say but for the head of the sport’s anti-doping programme to utter those words is shocking.

Tennis, with all the physical demands it places on the body, is potentially EPO heaven and you will find fewer and fewer players who deny that now. They know, in increasing numbers, about the threat of doping in tennis, even if the man charged with investigating it seemingly does not. Last year, Miller said he stood by the view that tennis does not lend itself “to a particular category of performance-enhancing products”.

Frankly, the arrogance, and ignorance, is astounding.

But it’s not just Miller. Francesco Ricci Bitti is president of the ITF and is another ostrich in the anti-doping debate. He has called tennis one of the “leaders” in the fight against the dopers despite all evidence saying precisely the opposite. Who calls it a leader? The men of the ITF, perhaps?

“Professional tennis has had few problems with drug abuse and it is our intention to continue to keep our sport clean,” he said, but that was back in 2001. What’s he been saying more recently? Pretty much the same thing, actually.

After the fall of cycling’s arch doper Lance Armstrong, he said: “The tennis anti-doping programme is something that we can be proud of as the quality is well recognised.” Well recognised by who? The grandees in the ITF?

Let’s consider the case against tennis. In the week of the 2010 Australian Open, the journeyman American player, Wayne Odesnik, was caught trying to bring eight vials of human growth hormone, plus syringes, into the country. Odesnik was banned for two years, later reduced to one year on account of him supposedly becoming a whistleblower for the ITF.

Wayne doesn’t seem to be blowing too many whistles. He was, however, playing at Wimbledon this year.

Odesnik has been linked to a Miami clinic run by Tony Bosch, a supplier of doping products to athletes from different sports including tennis. Odesnik’s name appears in Bosch’s files. There is a separate heading marked “Tennis”. That story first appeared in the Miami Times in January. The newspaper contacted the ITF, the ATP and the WTA, the main governing bodies of the sport, for comment and got back a few lines of mumbo-jumbo which amounted to a refusal to comment on what was the latest glaring indication of a problem in their sport. There have been many such indicators.

Eufemiano Fuentes, the notorious Spanish doping doctor, has said that it wasn’t just cyclists that he treated, it was footballers, boxers and tennis players, too. When a Spanish judge refused to allow Fuentes’ non-cycling clients to be named (or their blood bags to be analysed) Andy Murray called it the greatest cover-up in the history of sport. Murray is not the type of guy who involves himself in controversy when he can avoid it, so what was it about the Fuentes decision that riled him so much?

There’s Bosch, there’s Fuentes and, of course, there is Luis Del Moral, a doctor who figures prominently in cycling’s grim story, a prolific supplier of doping products in that world.

Look up Lance Armstrong or Tyler Hamilton and you will not have to look much further to find Del Moral and his role in their blood transfusions and their systematic taking of EPO.

Del Moral was banned for life by the United States Anti-Doping Agency and yet, in his past, at the TennisVal Academy in Valencia, he worked with Sara Errani, the 2012 French Open finalist, and Dinara Safina, the former world No.1 and three-times Grand Slam finalist. Others who went through TennisVal include world No.4 David Ferrer, the Russian Igor Andreev, the world No.10 Maria Kirilenko, world No.79 Anabel Medina and double Grand Slam champion Marat Safin, Safina’s brother.

Del Moral worked at the Academy for 14 to 15 years, his time there overlapping with his years alongside Armstrong at US Postal.

The ITF said they investigated Del Moral’s assocation with tennis players. “If there’s a case where somebody has breached the rules, it will be publicly reported,” said Miller. “So you can draw what conclusions you like from that.”

In other words, move along, there is nothing to see here.

During this Wimbledon, Tomas Berdych, ranked sixth in the world, was asked what he thought about his sport’s policing of anti-doping. “It cannot be worse,” he said. Last year, Djokovic revealed that he had not been blood tested for six or seven straight months, a statement that was supported by other top players who feel that the ITF are asleep at the wheel, who feel that Miller’s assertion that tennis is in a “good place to detect instances of doping” is bunkum.

The ITF spend less and less money on anti-doping, the absence of many positive tests seemingly their reason for cutting down their costs year on year when many elite performers are telling them that the problem is rising, not falling.

“I’m sure there are guys who are doing it, getting away with it, and getting ahead of the testers,” said the American player James Blake last year. “I’m realistic that, with this much money involved, people will try to find a way to get ahead.”

They don’t need to try that hard in tennis. The number of tests carried out is woefully low, the number of out-of-competition tests and blood tests is so far behind other sports that it is easy to conclude that tennis doesn’t want to catch anybody, that they are happy to have substandard testing that will allow them to carry on with the pretence that their sport is largely clean.

Dick Pound, the former chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency, has spoken in the past about the ITF’s programme and whether it is “actually designed to succeed or designed to fail and merely cover their butts”.

Designed to fail, that’s it in a nutshell. Meanwhile, only the small fry seem to get caught, most recently the Brazilian Challenger Tour player, Fernando Romboli – 733rd in the world – and the Czech unknown Barbara Zahlavova Strycova.

Why is that? Are these the only ones taking banned substances? Does the ITF know? Does the ITF even care?