Sports are my safe place. They’re where I go when the rest of the world is just too big, too scary too complicated. Tennis is my favorite sport. There are rules. There are consequences for breaking the rules. There’s a beginning and an end. There’s a winner and a loser. There’s hope, there’s heartache, there’s anxiety, there’s ecstasy, and there’s always another day.
In the realm of my real life, I’m a cynic. A realist. I don’t often get the feeling of butterflies and fireworks and floating on clouds. There’s always a pit in my stomach. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. But sports are a space where I still can believe in magic. Where miracles still occur.
Tennis is my escape. Or at least it used to be.
Everyone in tennis is talking about doping these days. Richard Gasquet and Jo Wilfried Tsonga think there should be more blood testing. Roger Federer thinks he’s being tested less and less as time goes on. James Blake is certain that there are people in tennis who are doping. A tennis academy in Valencia where many players in the ATP and WTA tour train has ties to one of the most prominent doctors in the Lance Armstrong scandal, Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral. (Read this to further understand that connection.)
I don’t feel so safe anymore.
I used to believe that there was plenty of testing in tennis. I thought that the fact that testers would wake players up at 6 AM a few times a year meant that there was accountability. I thought the fact that there weren’t many negative tests meant that the sport was clean. I also used to stay up way past my bed-time to watch Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire hit homeruns, thinking it was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. I used to have a poster of Marion Jones on my wall. I used to wear a Livestrong bracelet.
I want to be an optimist when it comes to tennis. I want to believe that Sara Errani’s ascent to from journeywoman to the WTA Championships was because of a racket change and confidence boost. I want to believe that getting rid of gluten and improving his fitness turned Novak Djokovic into a legend. I want to believe that the extended time out for Rafael Nadal’s recovery is just for his knee, that Serena Williams was really hiding in her panic room at 6 AM because she was afraid of being robbed, and that Roger Federer is still playing top-level tennis at 31 because he’s just that awesome.
I don’t mention all of these people with the desire to single anyone out. I mention them because right now the amount of blood tests and out-of-competition tests in tennis is an absolute joke. I mention them because until that changes there is a cloud hanging over every single player. I mention them because I want to be an optimist, but I do not want to be a fool.
How am I supposed to believe a system is effective when there are so many unanswered questions? What exactly happened in the Wayne Odesnik case? What exactly did the ITF discover in their investigation into del Moral? Why aren’t testing results reported on a more regular basis? There can be no faith the system is working as long as there is no transparency.
I keep hearing that money is an issue and that there just aren’t enough resources to expand the doping program. I don’t care. The money is going to be a lot bigger of an issue if a scandal breaks and destroys the sport. Find the money before it’s too late. Ask Larry Ellison. Start a Kickstarter. Do whatever it takes. The integrity and the future of the sport is at stake. The ATP is in a golden era right now. The WTA is blossoming again after a rough few years. Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic are some of the biggest sports stars in the world right now. All of them won Grand Slams last year. There is a lot to lose. The truth will come out.
“Because I love tennis,” Andy Murray said to journalists as he talked about the Armstrong scandal, “(I) would hate for anything like that to happen to (my) own sport.”
I would hate it too. Fans and journalists have started to speak up. People are asking questions. And now, finally, so am I. But why aren’t the leaders of the sport asking the hard questions? Where is the action? Where is the panic? What are we hiding? Who are we protecting? I would hate for the tennis world to sit idly by as the sport is compromised. I would hate for this wonderful sport to be forever tainted.
I’m not naive enough (anymore) to think that all sports are completely clean, or that it’s even a possibility for that to happen. There are always going to be people looking to get ahead in malicious ways. But the magic of sports, the thing that makes them so popular, is that they are grounded in reality. That these are real people doing extraordinary things. If I wanted manufactured greatness I would watch a movie. Or wrestling. I want to believe in heroes, not cheats. I want to believe in miracles, not drugs. I want to marvel, not doubt.
I want my safe place back.
Sport is supposed to be the ultimate in reality TV.
If chemical cocktails are scripting the action, so much of the spectacle – like the effort invested in creating it – is wasted.
Great piece, Linz!
I agree with you. Tennis is my favourite sport and I’d like to believe that the top players are clean, but I can’t. I’m not that naive.
And, as you said, I’d like to know: What exactly happened in the Wayne Odesnik case?
There are just so many mysteries involving the Odesnik case…I mean, they said his sentence was reduced because he “cooperated”–basically that he named names–but he swears he didn’t. There really needs to be more transparency in these issues. I understand the right to privacy, but right now that’s hurting the sport.
This is truly wonderful writing. I sincerely hope the heads of both tours read this piece and get it through their thick skulls just how much they’re risking by NOT extending testing a heck of a lot more. Great work, Lindsay!
Thanks Nicole. I just hope that if we all keep talking about it that eventually they will have to do something about it. Already it seems like the talk is helping and that the blindfolds are coming off, I just hope it reaches the right people.
Great piece! I still feel like the sport’s biggest issue, not just in testing but in many other areas, is the fact that there are still too many moving parts and too many individual and corporate interests that are always trying to have their way. The ATP has their own interests. So does the WTA. So does the ITF. So does each tournament. Not to mention all the players who basically work as independent contractors. Yes they have to follow the rules in order to compete at events, but as in the Odesnik case, if someone does get busted for a infraction or worse, it’s still not clear to many fans who do they ultimately have to answer to – the ITF, WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) or even local, state or national authorities as was the case with Odesnik who is an American citizen but was caught carrying illegal substances in Australia.
Odesnik’s case, whether someone does or doesn’t think it was fair or not that he was allowed to play again, should have served as the bigger wake-up call to the sport at large. But it didn’t and so we are at where we are now. I have feeling that a bigger scandal is only a matter of time. Hopefully it won’t come to pass, but we may all have to run into a panic room to ride it out when it does.
Thanks for the great comment Erik- you hit the nail on the head. The conflicts of tennis are so intertwined yet contradictory that it turns everything into a gridlock. Checks and balances are one thing–tennis has moved far beyond that.
Beyond the fact that it makes it hard to know who is in charge, it also makes it easy for nobody to step up. All the leaders look to someone else to take a stand, and it just takes that much longer to get things done. I wish that the Odesnik case had been the wake-up call, because that was relatively small scale. I fear that what might be coming will be much, much more catastrophic. I’ll prepare my panic room just in case =)
It’s so great that people are finally talking about doping in tennis. Thank you for writing this because I feel the same.
I’ve read several times already that a big scandal is about to come out… I hope it’s true. I’m not scared about it, I don’t care who has to fall down. For me it just gets to a point where I don’t trust anyone’s achievements 100% anymore. I get such an impression that tennis is a farce that I’m just hoping there’s a massive raid and we can start over, honestly. Let tennis lose sponsors, let myths and incredible stamina and epic 6 hour grinding marathons go down if that’s what is needed to have a cleaner, fairer sport.
Worst thing for tennis is not losing money but letting fair players be robbed of their careeers by cheaters.
English is not my first language so sorry if I made any mistakes 😉
Thanks for the comment Morrigan- I sure wish I had your confidence going forward. The thought of a scandal scares me, but I would rather the truth come out now and by the hands of our own media and leaders than have a situation like cycling where the truth is hidden for so long and then finally blown open by outsiders. But you are right- having clean players have careers ruined by dopers is the worst case scenario.
And your English is fantastic =)
One has to do a kind of double-think – assume that anyone, and I do mean *anyone*, could be doping; but also assume innocence until something more than rumour, weak circumstance, and agenda appears.
Given what’s happened in men’s cycling over the years, Linz, and given the detailed revelations in Lance Armstrong’s case, do you really think that increased testing will bring that safe space back? Is there really a testing scheme that we can ever completely trust? Once you’ve started thinking about ways things can be taken, the way the best sportsmen can afford, if they want to, tailor-made, undetectable, doping schemes, and the money to be made, there is no way back to innocence anyway.
Back to cycling, there were signs of doping in performance, and how, for example, Armstrong moved up levels, leading to coded references in some journalists’ pieces, and finally, whistle-blowing to lift the lid on some of his activities. Are there similar performance indicators in tennis? (and no, I don’t mean “he doesn’t look breathless after a long point and the opponent does! He’s a doper!” type indicators.) Throughout tennis history we’ve seen players improve their fitness and take their tennis to a new level – is this normal, are the improvements made realistically within the bounds of possibility? Tennis has a history of marathon matches across all surfaces and styles of play, and including many players. (yeah, I know the latest marathon is always the Mostest, but I tend to put a lot of that down to recency bias.)
So how do we know what’s normal and what’s not? Should we be looking at the whole of tennis history with a more suspicious eye? Because if testing is weak now, just think how weak it must’ve been in previous eras.
Cycling testing tackles the performance aspects with a biological passport. Tennis at the moment seems to rely on deterrent effects such as the whereabouts rule, and keeping players uncertain about when they will be tested out-of-competition. (something that doesn’t get mentioned as a factor when we talk about the number of tests. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but I assume that’s the aim of the system.) More resources so that tennis could run the passport system would be wonderful – the sport can afford it. Cycling’s scheme last year was apparently $4.7 million worth of testing. Larry Ellison could add $3 million to the ITF’s budget all by himself and never notice.
The comments about the many authorities in tennis possibly leaving gaps and leading to corruption are very interesting to me as perhaps men’s cycling’s worst problem was having one authority in charge, UCI, that was complicit in widespread doping in the peloton. It was the national drug authority, USADA, that finally brought Armstrong crashing down. So which is really likely to be worse – too many authorities, or too few? I would’ve said too few was *far* more likely to lead to problems than too many. UCI once accepted money directly from Armstrong and did not appear to notice that this could be seen as a clear conflict of interest – even without any of the more sinister implications. One team sponsor walked away from cycling entirely, with the clear implication that they did not trust UCI as a governing body.
Another question, one that I rarely see talked about, is the role of sponsors. One of the things I read about in the Armstrong case was one of UCI’s people accepting a payment directly from Nike to cover up a test – an accusation made under sworn testimony IIRC – and Nike initially stood by Armstrong after USADA’s report came out. That surely raises some interesting questions for any sport in which Nike is involved, and yet I’ve seen no-one in tennis, blogger or journalist, look at it from this angle.
This comment is so amazing you raise so many great points. Let me address:
-You’re right–it’s a fine line between pointing fingers at innocent people over things like improvement and body shape–and yet watching things with reasonable doubt. It’s why the subject is so difficult to talk about, and why I almost didn’t write this piece. People are very irresponsible with the accusations they throw around, but there has to be a way to still talk about the problem.
I think that the doping technologies are so much more sophisticated and advanced than I could ever understand, and that there will always be bad guys who are a step ahead. But I don’t think that means that we should sit idly by and not advance the system. I think that the Armstrong scenario really opened my eyes and perhaps I’ll never be as naive as I once was. I don’t think the blindfold works backwards, but I think that by increasing the funding of the system, and by at least trying to keep up with doping technology by putting an emphasis on out-of-competition tests, transparency, and blood tests over urine tests that at least we can get some faith in the system restored.
I think the problem with too many authorities is that nobody really feels like the authority at all. I could be completely off base, but it feels to me that responsibility on big issues in tennis keeps getting pushed around. Of course having one corrupt authority is a huge, huge problem, but so is having a system where nobody steps up to take a stance.
The sponsor issue is a huge part of this, and I’m glad you brought this up. I had a commenter on a piece I did on equal pay piece talk about the sponsors involvement in that, and I do think we underestimate, or at least don’t talk enough about, how much control they have over things. Money talks, and they have it.
“People are very irresponsible with the accusations they throw around, but there has to be a way to still talk about the problem.”
Oh, I completely agree. Also agree that tennis can’t ignore the implications of the Lance Armstrong case and the USADA report and carry on as usual. But then, I don’t think that it is. The top three men’s players have mentioned the need for more testing; most journalists have written pieces about the implications, including some of the big boys; players linked to the Valencia academy have all been questioned about their work with Dr del Moral; the ITF has said it will investigate running a passport scheme. Maybe this is all talk and maybe it isn’t, but there’s a real desire within the sport and fans to see things happen, and I hope & think they will. It’s just not going to happen overnight.
It’s not that the ATP doesn’t have money to pay for more testing. They don’t want to. They know top players are dopers. The organisation is doing everything they can to cater to their wishes and desires – they’ve changed the courts, the format, the calendar. They won’t finance the health department that’s going to put away their golden cows.
Anyone who isn’t utterly naïve knows there’s no way a guy with Ferrer’s technical skills can occupy the top 10 for years. That Djokovic’s improvement has nothing to do with his diet. That Nadal’s speed and endurance have never been natural (not to mention is long breaks every year and his predictable slumps, always around the same part of the season). Check out how many Spaniards have broken the top 100, top 50. Has Spain discovered a magical formula to propel all their athletes (not just tennis players – their football team, for instance, went from being mediocre at best to winning the world cup) to the top of the world? Maybe their doctors did?
I think it’s about time we stop being naïve and hypocritical.
Comments are closed.