Doping in sports is rife. Power and politics too often combine to undermine the rules of fair play, effectively turning sport into organised crime. Doping has eroded public confidence in sports such as cycling, weight lifting, wrestling, boxing, track and field and, in light of the 2014 Sochi Olympics and the Oscar-winning Netflix documentary, Icarus, almost anything with a Russian competitor. But what about tennis?
By way of background, the use of drugs to improve physical performance dates back to the beginning of recorded history. As early as 1400BC, the Susruta of India advocated the ingestion of testis tissue to cure impotence. Likewise, the gladiators in the Roman Colosseum used unspecified stimulants to overcome fatigue and injury.
By the latter half of the nineteenth century the world saw the beginnings of what is now considered modern medicine. Naturally, or perhaps not so, it was at this time that the use of drugs quickly become entrenched in sport. Boxers, cyclists, swimmers, sprinters and the like would use various forms of caffeine, cocaine, strychnine tablets and nitro-glycerine to aid performance. However, it wasn’t until the 1920s that there was any attempt to reprimand doping in sport.
Nowadays, the war on doping is led by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) – which was founded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who also provides WADA with 50% of their funding – and their three-pronged program. WADA’s trident against doping includes: the WADA Anti-Doping Code (the Code) which seeks to provide regulatory harmony in sports doping control; its ‘Prohibited List’ of proscribed substances and methods; and models of best practice to help organisations (such as the International Tennis Federation (ITF)) with the adoption of the Code.
Even with the WADA seeking to eradicate doping from sport, doping is as prevalent as ever. For example, the 2012 London Olympic Games was, at the time, branded the cleanest Olympics ever, with only 9 failed tests. Except it wasn’t. Since the Games, with retrospective and more advanced testing methods, a total of 139 athletes have been banned or disqualified from competing again; this itself was an Olympic record. Of the 139 there were 39 medallists, 13 of which won gold. Unsurprisingly, of the 139 athletes, 46 were Russian – perhaps providing insight for what was to come in Sochi.
The Sochi Olympics too lives in infamy following the now-famous Russian Government state-sponsored doping program made famous after the brains behind the operation, Grigory Rodchenkov, blew the whistle on their systemic cheating operation. As a result, Russia was stripped of most, although not all, of its medals from what was almost the most successful Winter Olympic campaign in history.
Alarmingly, in an anonymous survey published in 2018, 44% of 1200 international athletes admitted to having doped at least once. However, on average across all sports, testing only returns a positive result around 1-2% of the time.
So what about tennis?
Currently, tennis is generally seen as a “clean” sport. It has not faced a doping crisis like that of cycling, the Olympics or track and field. It follows that the question becomes: is tennis so different from other sports that it really is clean?
Historically, based on what we know, doping in tennis could be described as sporadic although not systemic. Famous examples include that of Andre Agassi who, in his award winning autobiography ‘Open’, revealed that in 1997 he took crystal methamphetamines to enhance his performance. Disturbingly, after testing positive to the substance, Agassi wrote to the ATP saying that he unwittingly ingested the drugs from the spiked drink of one of his associates. The ATP accepted Agassi’s version of events, (calling it a lie would also work), and he escaped suspension.
By the time Agassi’s admission came, WADA’s eight year statute of limitations had passed meaning he was, in effect, untouchable.
In the early 2000’s three Argentinean men’s players, Juan Ignacio Chela, Mariano Puerta and Guillermo Canas, each received suspensions for taking various forms of steroids. Puerta, who was the first man bestowed with the honour to lose a French Open final to Rafael Nadal, later admitted that – in trying to reduce the second doping sentence of his career – he lied to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. After his eight year ban was reduced to two years in 2007, Puerta’s his career was over by 2009.
Another famous name in the list of dopers is Swiss-sweetheart, Martina Hingis. In 2007, after her first retirement, Hingis was banned after testing positive for a cocaine metabolite, benzoylecgonine, while at Wimbledon. Despite protesting, Hingis was found guilty by the ITF and banned for two years which, at the time, was considered to have ended her career. That was until her third comeback.
More recently, Czech, Barbora Strycova, owner of two WTA singles titles and 29 doubles titles including the 2019 Wimbledon Grand Slam, was suspended after testing positive for banned weight loss stimulant in 2012.
Tennis’ golden girl, Maria Sharapova is another name on the naughty list. The Russian was famously banned in 2016 at the Australian Open after being found guilty of taking meldonium. While Sharapova’s case, was more akin to poor administration and carelessness than intentional doping; the superstar still illegally took the drug that increases blood flow.
"Meldonium was added [to the Prohibited List] because of evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance," WADA wrote in a statement regarding Sharapova's failed drug test.
This year, Ukrainian and world number 29, Dayana Yastremska tested positive to a banned substance, an anabolic agent, in an out-of-competition sample taken in the off season before the Australian Open and received a provisional suspension until her case is resolved by the ITF.
Nonetheless, despite the fact there clearly is opportunity to dope in tennis, as there is in all sports, seldom does anyone gets caught. It has been suggested this might not be by accident.
Tennis’ reputation for being a clean sport may not be because its participants, by and large, refuse to dope. Rather, it may be that there’s nobody really trying to catch them.
If this were true, why might it be the case? Well, for one, anti-doping efforts cost a lot and doping scandals are bad for business. Just ask cycling.
Following the Sharapova scandal, an ESPN investigation (which can be read here: https://www.espn.com.au/espn/otl/story/_/id/17693288/tennis-pristine-image-performance-enhancing-drugs-which-no-accident) found that tennis’ anti-doping effort involved generally ineffective and unreliable testing methods. Further, little effort was placed into testing for drugs that provide players with the greatest benefit, such as erythropoietin (EPO), growth hormone and synthetic testosterone.
It was also found, among a long list of deficiencies in tennis’ anti-doping crusade, that tennis’ testing rates were on par with lesser profile sports such as handball and kayaking; and that the sports enforcement rates upon finding an adverse test was among the worst of all reported summer Olympic sports.
It was this same investigation that revealed a supplier of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) considered the sports anti-doping programme a “Mickey Mouse” operation and “something to appease”; as opposed to a programme of real substance. This same supplier claimed to have supplied PEDs to 12-15 current and former pro-male tennis players. Yikes.
Another major concern is the lack of resources the sport is investing into the fight on doping. Following the ESPN investigation and Sharapova scandal, the ITF announced they were increasing their fight and allocating a total of $4.5m (USD) to their anti-doping budget. For context, that is 1.5% of the revenue earned by the US Open, one of the sports seven governing bodies, in 2018.
Alternatively, that is about as much as Novak Djokovic took home for beating Juan Martin Del Potro in the final that same year.
At the time, the President of the ITF, David Haggerty, said “we welcome this strengthening of the sport’s anti-doping efforts”.
“Protecting the integrity of tennis is an ongoing priority of the governing bodies of tennis to ensure that tennis is and remains a clean sport, and these enhancements will make a positive contribution to achieving that priority.”
Despite these assertions it would appear that tennis has a long way to go before becoming a leader in the fight against doping.
So, back to our original question: is tennis so different from other sports that it really is clean?
The answer: we don’t know. It might be; but it’s probably not. We’ll only know for sure when the sport actually cracks down on doping. Get it?