World number 9 and two-time grand slam champion, Simona Halep, has been provisionally suspended from the WTA tour by the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA) for testing positive for a banned substance.
The ITIA, who is responsible for administering the sports anti-doping regime, released a statement this morning that confirmed that Halep has been suspended after two samples collected at the US Open, where Halep lost in the first round, returned a positive reading for Roxadustat – a prohibited substance under World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules.
Roxadustat, sold under the brand name Evrenzo, is an anti-anemia medication and is approved for use in the European Union. Relevantly, Roxadustat is known to stimulate the body to increase its production of the natural hormone erythropoietin – better known as EPO.
EPO has long been used to gain a competitive advantage in sports and was famously part of American cyclist Lance Armstrong’s doping scheme which illegally assisted Armstrong in winning seven Tour de France championships.
Halep, who ended her season early in September to undergo nose surgery after improving her ranking this year from 20 to ninth in the world, was informed of her positive test on October 7th.
After exercising her rights under the anti-doping code, Halep requested that her secondary sample be analysed, which subsequently confirmed the initial findings.
In a statement released on Instagram, Halep said she felt shocked and betrayed.
“Today beings the hardest match of my life: a fight for the truth”, her statement read.
“Throughout my whole career, the idea of cheating never even crossed my mind once, as it is totally against all the values I have been educated with.
“Facing such an unfair situation, I feel completely confused and betrayed.
“I will fight until the end to prove that I never knowingly took any prohibited substance and I have faith that sooner rather than later, the truth will come out.
“It’s not about the titles or the money. It’s about honour and the love story that I have developed with the game of tennis over the last 25 years.”
While the ITIA statement did not detail the exact quantity of Roxadustat found in Halep’s system, Halep said in her statement that it was an “extremely low quantity which came as the biggest shock of [her] life”.
On first look, this statement appears to be rather unremarkable and typical of someone in Halep’s position who may indeed have no possible idea how the substance entered her system.
Yet, on a deeper inspection, the use of the word “betrayed” appears to raise more questions than answers given she likely spent hours and hours debating and critiquing her choice of words before releasing them to the public in the fortnight since she first learned of her positive sample.
If Halep, 31, is found guilty of taking Roxadustat she faces a four-year ban from the WTA Tour and all events sanctioned by any governing bodies.
However, should Halep be able to prove that the substance entered her system without her knowledge and without fault – that is, absent any findings of carelessness – it remains possible her suspension will be overturned or reduced to a matter of months with the possibility of it being backdated to the commencement of her provisional suspension earlier this month.
For now, there remain too many unknowns to be able to predict how this will play out accurately.
Unfortunately for the Romanian, she now joins an infamous list of tennis players caught up in the world of doping.
During his playing days, and in a time of admitted weakness, American great Andre Agassi turned to crystal methamphetamines to enhance his performance; although he never faced any sanctions after lying to officials about how the drug entered his system.
In the early 2000s three Argentinean men’s players, Juan Ignacio Chela, Mariano Puerta, and Guillermo Canas, each received suspensions for taking various forms of steroids.
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 her protests, 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.
In 2009, then 23-year-old Richard Gasquet managed to avoid a two-year ban for cocaine use after the Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted Gasquet's claim that the substance was only in his system due to him kissing a woman who had taken cocaine at a nightclub.
Marin Cilic was banned for nine months in 2013 after accidentally ingesting the prohibited stimulant nikethamide while taking glucose tablets.
More recently, Maria Sharapova was famously banned in 2016 at the Australian Open after being found guilty of taking meldonium. Although in the Russian’s case, she was more likely guilty of poor medical administration than intentional doping.
While doping is a problem in all sports, it is far more prevalent at the lower levels of tennis where players fight, scratch, and grind for minimal prize money that doesn’t come close to covering costs.
In the last six months of 2022 alone, twelve individuals on the tennis tour were suspended for violating anti-doping rules.