Onus on players for stricter drug testing amid growing skepticism
I've gotten a heavy batch of drug-themed questions lately. I tried to hit on as many themes as possible here:
Over the past five years, baseball has endured the shame of the Mitchell Report, the fallout from the steroid era and a persistent drum beat of performance-enhancing drug scandals. The most recent occurred last month. The revelation of Lance Armstrong's serial fraudulence simply wiped out cycling's ne plus ultra. NFL players have been clipped for using banned substances; so have all manner of Olympic athletes. And Australian rules football players. And track stars and swimmers and boxers and UFC fighters.
In tennis, there's been very little action. Oh, a few players have been popped, most of them armed with an alibi. Wayne Odesnik's unlucky bag check revealed vials of human growth hormone. Some players have been named and shamed for testing positive for hair-loss medication, earning spots in late-night monologues. Guillermo Coria, one of the highest-ranked players to test positive, won a settlement for tainted pills.
But no notable players -- certainly no stars -- have been suspended. In fact, here's a study noting, "The incidence in wheelchair players [submitting a positive doping sample] was higher than in non-handicapped subjects."
In the absence of positives, you look for circumstantial evidence. In the absence of circumstantial evidence, you look for anecdotal evidence. And for all the gossip rocketing around -- predatory coaches and parents embezzling their kids' money -- there wasn't much chatter about doping.
Yet today, the sport is in the crosshairs of a doping controversy. I'm often asked: How dirty is tennis? My standard answer goes something like this. "You're naïve to think it's 100 percent clean. No sport is. On the other hand, do I think a majority of the top 20 are juicing? No."
But here's the thing: It doesn't matter. Perception has become reality. The slightest change in physique triggers skepticism. A long match induces suspicion about the powers of restoration and recovery. Absences attributed to everything from mono to knee injuries are rejected by many.
While no top players have failed drug tests since Coria, here's what HAS happened over the past few years.
• Maybe most damning in my eyes, Andre Agassi revealed that in the late 1990s, his positive test for crystal meth was covered up. Yes, this was a recreational drug. (Though you could assert it was performance enhancing.) Yes, this was when the ATP, not WADA, oversaw testing, an inherent conflict of interest. Yes, it was 15 years ago. Still, it showed the capacity for tennis administrators to conceal a positive test. Suddenly those prone to seeing conspiracy everywhere sounded a lot less like a lunatic fringe.
• Athlete after athlete in all manner of sports have been busted. And seldom was it accompanied by a positive test.
• We've learned that recovery and stamina can be just as important as muscle mass. (Self-flagellating digression: A few days ago, I had to send a version of Strokes of Genius to a foreign publisher. For the first time in a long time, I thumbed through the book. I cringed when I came across a brief section on doping. Here's part of what I wrote: "For one, tennis doesn't particularly lend itself to doping. It's more a sport of hand-eye coordination, technique and mental fitness, than it is a sport of raw speed and brute strength. The sheer mass wrought from anabolics would likely do more harm than good, particularly if it came at the expense of movement and quickness. While certain PED's that accelerate recovery times and increase workout capacities could be beneficial for tennis players, it's difficult for athletes with an eleven-month season cycle and on and off." Suffice to say, I would not write that today.)
• The Spanish doctor at the center of the Operation Puerto trial, perhaps the largest anti-doping conspiracy in sports history, has asserted: "I worked with all types of athletes. Footballers, athletes, cyclists, boxer and tennis players."
• Luis del Moral Garcia -- a doctor who was recently banned for life for his lengthy involvement with the U.S. Postal Service team headed by Armstrong -- had an association with a prominent tennis academy in Valencia, Spain.
• We've seen Odesnik halve his sentence by providing "substantial assistance" -- essentially rolling in a plea deal -- but then denying he ratted out other players. What?
• Maybe most important, we've seen the flaws and loopholes in the ITF/WADA doping policy. For years, I took a backseat to no one, unfortunately, in being seduced by tennis' anti-doping efforts. The sport was early to recognize the incentives to dope and recognized the dangers and conflicts (see: Agassi) of letting the governing bodies do their own testing. The WADA code had credibility, and the ITF even published results on their website, a mark of transparency compared to other sports.
Today, we know the flaws. We know about the lack of funding. The absence of a biological passport. The indefensible paucity of out-of-competition testing. The litany of PEDs that can't be detected without more extensive and expensive screening. So the perception is that the mechanism is broken. Players are getting away with cheating. The administrators are toothless, gutless and turning a blind eye. And the truth -- whatever it may be -- doesn't much matter at this point.
A part of me truly feels for the athletes. If they defend themselves, it can sound like too much protesting. If they note they never failed a test, it's pointed out that Armstrong, Marion Jones and Mark McGwire didn't either. If they remain silent, it is construed as guilt. A player recently asked me how he could possibly prove that he was clean. Half-jokingly, I suggested affixing a 24/7 webcam to his forehead, like security footage. He shook his head. "Someone would accuse me of doctoring the tape."
A part of me feels for the fans, too, though. They trust their eyes now. They've been seared and burned and disappointed so many times. How can they not arch eyebrows and express collective skepticism over the vaguely explained retirements and unretirements and leaves of absences? "I've never failed a test" now ranks among the most meaningless phrases in the sports lexicon.
My friend Howard Bryant of ESPN wrote about doping last week. We differ on the severity of the problem. I'm not convinced the "PED cannon is pointed at tennis." I'm not sure "the fix is in," as the alarmist headline asserts. But his thesis was absolutely right: In the absence of responsible, unconflicted adults, the players must take charge. They must demand stricter testing and a greater commitment of resources. Yes, it's necessary to catch the cheaters, the colleagues distorting competition and stealing what is not theirs. But it's also to bolster their claims of innocence. Because right now -- in the face of mounting circumstantial evidence coming within the sport and also from the odious Lance Armstrongs of the world -- too often their achievements come with a presumption of guilt.
Just got this dispatch from Chile about Rafael Nadal and figured I would share. This is from journalist Daniel Fernandez:
He looked fine (just fine) tennis speaking, but he lost to Horacio Zeballos in the final only because he looked tired at the end, arguably unaccustomed to playing three hours in one of his demanding training seasons.
He arrived Friday and broke protocol to speak with reporters at the airport. A couple hours later, he was received by President Sebastián Piñera, together with Chilean players Fernando González and Nicolás Massú.
At Viña del Mar (a couple of hours) he trained with promising Chileans Christian Garín, 16, who won his first professional match at the tournament and Gonzalo Lama, 19. All his days Viña were madness, but he was always smiling, taking time to sign autographs, answer every simple question from the press and speak in the stadium after matches. I'm pretty sure if Federer comes to Chile some day it will be the same (or more), but in my country Nadal will always be remembered as a true champion on and off the field.
You took a bit of a dig at Richard Gasquet winning last weekend. There is no doubt he deserves his No. 10 ranking. His record against the top eight is lousy, but he basically beats everyone below him when a few years ago he would occasionally lose to a stiff ranked in the 100s.
-- JT, New York
• No one is digging at anyone. You earn the points you win. It's ultimately a meritocracy. No one gets his ranking via a random number generator.
But since you bring it up, though, this era is remarkable for the number of high-ranked players (Gasquet, David Ferrer and Nicolas Almagro top the list) simply incapable of making a dent against the Big Four. In fact, I see a cool infographic. One of our army of sports analytics enthusiasts want a project?
A friend says a top male player from a mid-level college could easily beat any of the top women. How do you think Serena Williams (in her prime) would fare against a top male college player?
-- Joe, Bridgeport, W.V.
• I hate this question but appreciate the curiosity. I say an average WTA pro holds her own on a mid-level college men's team, but may not win a round at the NCAA tournament. I also say, who cares?
Now that Novak Djokovic has six major titles (and will probably exceed John McEnroe/Mats Wilander with seven and Jimmy Connors/Andre Agassi with eight), is it too soon to put his career in historical perspective? Does he have a shot at tying Bjorn Borg with 11? Does he get extra points for achieving this during the Federer/Nadal era?
-- Djokovic fan, Los Angeles
• Good question. He gets extra points for achievements during this era. He gets docked for the heavy Australia concentration. It will be very interesting to take stock of Djokovic's career one day. As you rightly imply, I suspect few fans would guess that with his next major, he will tie McEnroe and trail Agassi by only one.
Despite a strong effort by Varvara Lepchenko, the U.S. went down to Italy in Fed Cup. Is it time for the U.S. to follow Great Britian's lead (Judy Murray is coaching) and bring in the most successful active coach, Oracene Price? Also, given that she has coached players to more than 50 Grand Slam titles, what are her chances of getting into the Hall of Fame?
-- Ken Wells, Sigonella Naval Air Station, Italy
• Yes, but could she get Venus and Serena to play? I can't be involved here, but someone should nominate Price for the Hall of Fame. You chuckle. Or you nod your head as if napping, look up startled and then chuckle. But name me another coach whose pupils won half as many majors. (Plus, that's one acceptance speech I would pay to hear. "Tennis? I won't lie, it bored me to pieces sometimes.") I'm not joking. If Price is on the ballot, she gets my vote.
I was pleased to find this must-read response noting, among other things, the double standards applied to male and female players in the wake of Victoria Azarenka's medical timeout at the Australian Open.
-- Nick Einhorn, Brooklyn, N.Y.
• The Azarenka mail persists and continues to come from all over the spectrum. She is a vile human being and should be suspended by the invertebrate WTA sportocrats. No, wait, she is fine and the uproar is just a manifestation of our sexism/frustration with the state of American tennis.
I'm giving this topic a much-needed rest for the week. But not before making this point: Azarenka was positively hammered last month. I mean drilled. Like a soft floater wafting before Serena Williams. I've never heard the ESPN crew so roundly criticize a player. (Compare the response after the Sloane Stephens-Azarenka match to the response of Serena's foot-fault incident.) This was a front-page story in The New York Times. The social-media spanking machine was revved up. Yes, I got in on the act, too. The notion that she somehow got away with something is wrong-headed. She acted poorly. She was punished, at least in the court of public opinion. Let's all move on now, no?
Do you think the ATP Board's shameful vote on the Indian Wells prize money will be enough to launch another player revolt? It would take one of the Big Four to make it work, but the conflict of interest that's now crippled the board is outrageous. What union turns down more money for rank and file to make sure the comfort level of ownership remains high?
-- Tracy Collins, Phoenix
• Here's an open invitation to the tournament reps on the ATP board: I am happy to publish your defense of the vote against an increase in prize money. Like so many, I consider this asinine at best, a breach of fiduciary duty at worst. I would add that this is tennis' growth-stunting conflicts of interest thrown into sharp relief. If you want to convince us otherwise, we're happy to provide a forum.
• An extended racket clap for dominant wheelchair champion Esther Vergeer. I love this line buried in the middle of the press release announcing her retirement:
"She has been named ITF Wheelchair World Champion for the last 13 years, winning 169 titles and ends her career on a winning streak of 470 matches, with her last defeat coming against Australian Daniela di Toro in Sydney on 30 January 2003."
• The Outsider by Jimmy Connors, "a no-holds-barred memoir from the original bad boy of tennis," comes out in May.
• Speaking of books, just got a galley copy of The Academy: Game On by Monica Seles.
• Dan Lydford of Perth, Ontario: "The reason American players don't relocate to Monaco or other tax havens is because Americans are subject to U.S. income taxes no matter where they live. Canadians living abroad do not have to pay income tax in Canada."
• Deborah of Sydney: "U.S. citizens are taxed globally, regardless of residence. If a U.S. citizen lives in a jurisdiction with a lower tax rate than the U.S., they have to (essentially) make up the difference to Uncle Sam. To enjoy the lower tax rate, the person would have to give up their U.S. citizenship (not just residence), and with the exception of certain Internet execs, as you can imagine that's not a popular choice."
• Damien of Strasbourg: "Here is a documentary that mixes French and English, with Serena Williams and players from all over the world. It's made for the benefit of the Mouratoglou Academy, but I think it is worth watching."