As I watched Lance Armstrong finally admit to doping on Oprah, while tennis journalists reacted with horror and knee-jerk condemnation of cycling on Twitter, I was reminded of how naïve the tennis community can be.
I don’t blame those who love the sport of tennis for not wanting to explore its dark side. Watching incredible five-setters at Grand Slams, I don’t want to think about whether the player who comes out on top might win the match for reasons that have little to do with their tennis ability.
I don’t want to doubt players who make sudden breakthroughs. I don’t want to question long winning streaks or the records tennis players set for amazing physical feats. I don’t want a lingering doubt to take away from my enjoyment of a match with incredible long rallies.
But the Armstrong story has hit close to home.
David Walsh, one of the only journalists to publicly question the legitimacy of Armstrong’s success early on, wrote about the experience of watching him (Sports Illustrated):
I think now of how unreal it all was: “The Blue Train” zooming up the early slopes of the Col de Telegraf in 99, Armstrong on the climb to Hautacam in 2000. “He came upon us like an aeroplane,” said Richard Virenque, a rival who also doped. In 2001, Rudy Pevenage, a rival team manager, said: “When others gasp for air with open mouths, he rides with a closed mouth, as if there is nothing to it.”
That was how it was in the era of Armstrong, unreal. Writing in the French newspaper, Liberation, three days before the end of Armstrong’s third Tour, Robert Redeker spoke of the disconnect between Armstrong and many of the sport’s oldest fans. “The athletic type represented by Lance Armstrong is coming closer to Lara Croft, the virtually fabricated cyber heroine . … Robocop on wheels, someone with whom no fan can relate or identify.”
In this increasingly physical tennis era, how many times have we heard matches described in the above manner?
But the tennis community still clings to an “it can’t happen here” mentality, without any real reason to believe it can’t.
It’s hard to write about doping in sports. You can’t write about your gut feeling or make accusations at individuals; you have to have evidence. I don’t have any evidence that anyone in particular (other than those who have been caught) is doping in tennis. But knowing all I know, it’s extremely hard to believe that nobody is.
The anti-doping testing controls used for tennis players are unacceptably lax. You need proof of this? Look at how many out-of-competition tests there are for 2011. In his Oprah interview, Armstrong revealed brazen lack of concern over the testing regimen’s ability catch him in the act because there was hardly any out-of-competition testing during his cycling career, and by the time he received an in-competition test, he was “clean.”
The USADA’s report, which detailed Armstrong’s methods, revealed that riders would hide from the testers who came out to perform out-of-competition tests if they knew they would test positive. There is no penalty for one missed out-of-competition test. It takes three strikes for there to be a violation recorded. With the small number of out-of-competition tests attempted, combined with the three strikes rule, it’s not nearly as hard to dodge the crucial out-of-competition testing as many would like to believe.
The methods used for testing tennis players are not even good enough to detect many substances. Tennis does not have enough blood tests, something Roger Federer pointed out not long ago. Many of the doping methods Armstrong used are not detectable by any form of testing employed by the ITF’s anti-doping program.
But there are even more compelling reasons to wonder if tennis is a clean sport.
In one of the most notorious doping scandals in recent history, Operación Puerto, the doctor involved, Eufemiano Fuentes, said that he treated top tennis players with his blood doping regimen. The names of those who he was referring to have never come out.
Additionally, another doctor who masterminded Lance Armstrong’s team doping regimen for years, Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral, has worked with tennis players. Are we to believe he only provided legitimate treatments to the players he worked with?
I don’t know if any tennis player is doping. Maybe no one is. I don’t know who to suspect or not to suspect. But despite my best efforts, my enjoyment of the sport I love will continue to be tainted by an underlying current of doubt until tennis’s testing regimen becomes more convincing.