Saturday, 17 May 2014

Tennis and doping: sorry, I’m no longer buying the denialist arguments

In July 2012, I wrote a post entitled “Do top tennis players take steroids? Only tougher testing will quash the endless rumours” (you can find it here). At that time, I was willing to set my doubts aside to carry on enjoying watching the sport that I love. Last year, I found it increasingly difficult to turn a blind eye as rumours concerning the use of performance-enhancing drugs escalated. Then Murray won Wimbledon and my doubts evaporated in a wave of euphoria. But they returned with a vengeance during the US Open: that’s when I finally lost faith.

By that stage the Top 20 Croatian player Marin Cilic was serving a four-month ban (reduced from nine months) after testing positive for the banned substance nikethamide at the Munich Open in May 2013, and the Serbian player Victor Troicki had been banned from competition for 12 months (reduced from 18 months) after refusing to submit to a blood test at the Monte Carlo Masters in April 2013 on the grounds that he wasn’t feeling well. There’d also been a bit of a kerfuffle earlier in the year when a Spanish judge refused to make a doctor convicted of providing blood transfusions for professional cyclists reveal the names of his 200 other clients, which included football and tennis players. For good measure, the judge ordered blood bags from those clients to be destroyed. At the time, Andy Murray said this could be “the biggest cover-up in sports history” and described it as “beyond a joke”.

Other players’ reactions to Troicki’s ban were interesting. Novak Djokovic – fellow-Serb, friend and Davis Cup colleague of Troicki’s – called the ban “a total injustice”, and blamed the incompetence of the testing authorities for a misunderstanding. Nadal took a similar line, although less vehemently. Federer said there was no excuse for missing a drug test and called – again – for more stringent testing. Andy Murray had a lot to say about it:
"When we're asked to go and give a drugs test, we must do that. That's what the rules are. There has to be zero tolerance. A lot of players a few years ago were almost naive in thinking that stuff just doesn't go on in tennis, or in sport. But you've seen over the last few years that it's become such a huge story across everything with athletes and cycling. 
"Obviously tennis has had a few problems as well, so to get the trust back from the public and from everyone we need to show that we are doing the right things, and when people break the rules that they are punished and that they don't get off, and I guess it's a step in the right direction. 
"You need to know the rules. I personally myself would never go and buy something over the counter in a pharmacy – it's just unprofessional. You need to check any supplement that you are taking: whether it's a protein shake or fish oils, or anything like that, you get it checked. We are professional athletes now – there's now no excuses."
The tennis authorities have introduced a biological passport, which they claim will make it easier to spot cheats, and will be more effective than the current regime of random urine and blood samples. The system is supposed to be fully operational by September. We’ll see. If it results in a few more headline names having their collars felt, I might start to believe. In the meantime I’ll continue the strategy I adopted after the Australian Open in January, namely boycotting all matches involving players who (a) regularly display supernatural feats of recovery between gruelling matches (b) end matches with more energy than they had at the start (c) take unexpectedly long breaks from tennis, citing injuries which weren’t apparent before their withdrawal, and who then return stronger, fitter and faster than before their break (Del Porto and Murray have had lengthy lay-offs from the sport due to injuries, but the effects of those injuries were painfully apparent beforehand, and they both had battles regaining their pre-break  performance levels – Del Potro has never quite recovered and Murray hasn’t beaten a Top 10 player this year since returning from back surgery, because that’s, you know, what happens to honest athletes (d) have a consistent and believable story regarding their injuries and how they managed to recover from them  (e) have a convincing explanation for spectacular dips and surges in form (f) whose body shape doesn’t regularly change markedly over the course of a season, and (g) aren’t from either of the two countries whose players have provoked the most discussion when it comes to performance-enhancing drugs.

There’s also a question-mark over players who suddenly hit  rich seam of form, but then drop back into the ranks or disappear altogthere after a few glorious months. That doesn’t mean every player who suddenly improves is suspect. For instance, Kei Nishikori, Stanislas Wawrinka, the brilliant young Bulgarian player Grigor Dimitrov, Candadian Milos Raonic and Ukrainian Alexandr Dolgopolov have all run into form this year, but their success doesn’t appear to be based on vast increases in stamina or bulging muscles – they’ve just learned (often with the help of new coaches) to make the most of their natural talent. It’s the emergence of these young guns (well, Stan’s getting on a bit, but you know what I mean), my continuing belief in the probity of the likes of Andy Murray and Roger Federer, and the hope that biological passports will help expose what Federer calls “the bad people” that have prevented me from altogether turning my back on a sport that I adore.

Good luck to Raonic and Dimitrov in their semi final matches at the Rome Open this afternoon and evening. I doubt either of them will reach tomorrow’s final, but I’d be delighted if they did.


  1. Lost a lot of money on Cilic over the years. I first saw him at Queens when he came from almost nowhere to beat Henman, an almost-great grass-court player, and I was sure, with Crazy-Goran behind him, and with Goran's build and power + double-handed backhand, he would sweep everybody away - but it was not to be. It became clear that he was rather fragile, not in physique, but in his ability to retain concentration when the pressure was on. Goran deserved his day in the sun in SW19; his protege, though still younger than Murray, will not, I fear, be similarly blessed.

    1. I agree - I don't think there's any possibility of Cilic ever winning a slam now: not only intestinal fortitude issues, but the lack of a truly top-class serve. He evidently likes Queen's, though, given that he won the Aegon Championship there in 2012 (albeit helped by Nalbandian inadvertently injuring a line-judge during the final).