Why Tennis Shouldn't Wait for an Incident to Address PEDs

Lindsay Gibbs@linzsports Featured ColumnistJuly 24, 2013

Tennis is no longer a finesse sport. The 2012 Australian Open men's final was the longest in tennis history.
Tennis is no longer a finesse sport. The 2012 Australian Open men's final was the longest in tennis history.Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

It's a scary time for people who love the sport of tennis. As high-profile cheaters are caught and suspended in sports such as baseball, cycling and sprinting, there seems to be an overwhelming sense of doom. 

The whispers are everywhere, and they're getting louder. "Is tennis next?"

The proof is all around us. Athletes will do whatever it takes to win. Nobody is immune from the desire for an extra boost that will help them compete for more power, more money and more prestige.

While not every athlete acts on this desire by using performance-enhancing drugs, there are enough that every sport should be worried. Even tennis.

Perhaps, as the sport becomes more and more physically demanding and the lack of organization and oversight at the top continues to allow loopholes, we should be especially worried about tennis.

Dr. Stuart Miller, the member of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) who oversees doping, told Slate in 2009, "It may be that tennis is not conducive to EPO. Maybe tennis is not a sport that is driven by a need to maximize stamina, which is what EPO essentially does."

As Tom English said in The Scotsman earlier this month, "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."

Miller's ideologies don't end there. The occasionally controversial but always enlightening blog Tennis Has a Steroid Problem compiled a list of other alarming things that Miller has said about doping in tennis throughout his tenure.

But whether Miller will admit it or not, everyone knows that there is doping in tennis. Unfortunately, with the current lack of testing and transparency, it's impossible to know how deep the problem is.

There are disturbing connections. Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral, the doctor at the heart of Lance Armstrong's doping scandal, has worked with tennis players such as David Ferrer, Sara Errani and Dinara Safina

There are even more disturbing cases. In 2010, Australian customs officers caught American Wayne Odesnik bringing eight vials of HGH and syringes into the country before the Australian Open.

Odesnik was originally banned for two years, but his suspension was reduced to one year when he pleaded guilty and cooperated with the ITF. He is back on tour full-time now, and though he is not popular among fans or players, he is allowed to play the sport he loves and make money doing so. He is currently ranked No. 111 and is the No. 10 American, ranked ahead of such prospects as Ryan Harrison and Donald Young.

Recently, Odesnik has been connected to the Biogenesis of America clinic in Miami that is at the center of the current MLB steroids scandal, but he denies the link completely. This is as transparent as the ITF will be about that investigation: 

Other lower-ranked players have been caught and sanctioned as well. Among them is 24-year-old Brazilian Fernando Romboli, who is ranked outside the Top 200 and was banned last September for failing a drug test. His ban was only revealed in May of 2013Czech player Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, ranked No. 124 at the time, was banned for six months starting last October.

But these bans always seem to serve a very specific purpose, turning inconsequential (to the ITF, at least) players into scapegoats. This way the ITF can say they're cracking down on drugs but leave all of the star players who make the tours thrive alone.

(Update: On July 25, the ITF banned former world No. 12 Viktor Troicki for 18 months for failing to provide a sample for drug testing.)

Even the higher-ranked players are starting to see that something is wrong. In the last year, players such as Novak Djokovic, Tomas Berdych, Andy Murray and Roger Federer have all gone on record recently saying that they want more testing in tennis.

Right now the top tennis players receive a maximum of 10 doping tests a year, with only a few of them being blood tests. That's less than one test a month for a sport that has an 11-month season.

"In tennis I'm sure there are guys who are doing it, getting away with it and getting ahead of the testers," American player James Blake told reporters during the 2012 U.S. Open, saying he was realistic and knew that with so much money on the table, people would find a way. 

It's simply naive to think otherwise. 

The truth is, until there is more effort and transparency involved with the ITF's anti-doping system, tennis will be under a cloud of suspicion. Every player who has bigger-than-average muscles, such as Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, will be the target of gossip. Everyone who has a phenomenal come-from-nowhere year, such as Errani, will be questioned. 

Everyone is supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. But with no system in place to effectively prove guilt, how can we be sure that anyone is innocent?

Last month, Miller told Simon Cambers of The Tennis Space that tennis is well on its way to adopting the biological passport this year, following in the steps of cycling. 

Tennis fans have to hold on to hope that this is good news and a step in the right direction, because history has proven that athletes will continue to get more brazen about their cheating the more they think they can get away with it. Use will become more rampant, and eventually the truth will come out.

Nobody wants tennis to have a PED scandal on its hands the way Major League Baseball or cycling does. Nobody wants to see the integrity of the sport and the legacy of the best players in the world tainted forever by drugs.

But until the ITF steps up its game, realizes that doping is a huge threat to the sport of tennis and acts accordingly, those threats will be lurking, just waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

In the world of doping, no news is not always good news.