FAQ: Drug Testing and Doping In Tennis

by: Ed McGrogan | April 29, 2010

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A primer on how tennis’ anti-doping program works.

Who runs tennis’ drug testing program?
The International Tennis Federation runs the program, in compliance with the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code.

What does the ITF spend on drug testing?
Stuart Miller, the head of the ITF’s Science and Technical department, oversees the doping program. In a recent interview, he said the ITF’s anti-doping budget is $1.5 million. The ITF spends most of this money on testing, Miller says. The figure does not include salaries related to anti-doping personnel; those are under the ITF’s general budget.

For what substances are players being tested?
Tennis tests for substances on the WADA prohibited substance list, including steroids and EPO, which is an endurance-boosting agent. For more information on these substances, visit this page of WADA’s web site.

Are tennis players subjected to urine tests, blood tests, or both?
Both, but not necessarily at each and every test. The ITF has the right to test for urine, blood, or both at any time, in competition and out of competition. It may also take different amounts of urine or blood, depending on which tests are scheduled (the EPO test, for example, requires more urine). According to its records, the ITF did not conduct any out-of-competition blood or EPO tests in 2009. And the only in-competition blood and EPO tests conducted by the ITF were done at Grand Slam tournaments.
Does the ITF test for human growth hormone (HGH)?
No. Though a test for HGH is available, it’s still under consideration by many sports, including tennis. The first-ever positive test for HGH in the sports world came earlier this year, when British doping authorities obtained a positive test for a rugby player. The HGH test requires a blood sample, and HGH is not detectable in a person’s system for long after he or she takes it.
How long does it take for an anabolic steroid to leave the body? What about EPO?
The simplest answer, according to Miller of the ITF, is, it depends. Different substances have different excretion rates, some as short as hours and others as long as weeks. Miller says other factors can contribute to excretion: The amount of the substance the athlete uses; the athlete’s physical activity level; and the athlete’s metabolism and diet.

How often are players tested?
In 2009, the ITF conducted 2,126 tests (total for both men and women at all levels, including Challenger events); 154 of those were out-of-competition tests. Roger Federer was tested 17 times in 2009: 12 urine tests, four blood tests, and one test for EPO (one of those tests was out of competition, the rest were at tournaments). Miller says additional out-of-competition tests were conducted by a testing agency licensed by WADA, but statistics for those are not currently available (for a complete look at the data, visit the ITF’s doping statistics page). The number of tests has increased markedly since 1991, when 312 tests were performed. Individual countries may also test tennis players as part of their national doping programs. When at the Olympics, tennis players are subject to the same tests as other Olympic athletes.

Will the number of player tests continue to increase?
For the time being, yes, but Miller sees an eventual “plateau” in the amount of testing. “There are some anti-doping organizations that see this as a numbers game, and that more testing equals better testing,” Miller says. “I think more intelligent testing equals better testing.” Miller expects out-of-competition tests to increase, as well as targeted testing.

What is targeted testing?
A “targeted test” is based on suspicion of doping, a noticeable improvement in performance, or other factors.

What is the whereabouts program?
The whereabouts program requires players to notify the ITF of their whereabouts during a one-hour window of each day of the year. During that one-hour window, the player must be available for testing at a specific location (i.e., the player’s hotel, a restaurant, a photo shoot, etc.). The whereabouts program applies to all players, men and women, who finished inside the Top 50 during the previous year, as well as the Top 10 doubles players and the Top 5 wheelchair and quad players.

What happens if a player fails to participate in the program?
Yanina Wickmayer found out last year. The Belgian was suspended by the ITF for a year for failing to report her whereabouts. She appealed the ruling in a Belgian court and won reinstatement in an initial ruling, though her legal fight is ongoing. If a player notifies the ITF of his or her whereabouts and is unavailable when a tester arrives, the player is subject to a strike, at the discretion of the ITF. Any combination of failures to report whereabouts or missed tests adding up to three is considered a doping offense and receives a minimum one-year ban, and a maximum of two years.

Who adjudicates positive tests and decides whether players should be punished, and for how long?
Cases are adjudicated by anti-doping tribunals, which are appointed by the ITF and act independently (the members are experts and not ITF employees; players have the right to challenge an appointee). If the ITF receives a positive test, it informs the player and begins the adjudication process. The ITF will advocate for penalty before the tribunal, which will decide to uphold the ITF’s recommendation, or side with the player if the player presents a defense. In the recent case of Richard Gasquet, for example, the ITF sought a one-year suspension when Gasquet tested positive for cocaine. A tribunal accepted Gasquet’s defense, which was that he tested positive for the drug after kissing a woman who had used it, and reduced the suspension to two and a half months. The ITF unsuccessfully appealed the reduced sanction to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

What notable players have tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs?
Tennis has had numerous positive tests over the years; for a full list, visit the ITF’s anti-doping decisions page. Czech player Petr Korda, the 1998 Australian Open champion, tested positive for the steroid nandrolone at Wimbledon in 1998 and after a long court battle, was suspended for one year (at which point he had already retired from the sport). Then there was the case of Sesil Karatantcheva, a Bulgarian teenager who was suspended for two years after testing positive for nandrolone. Other players who received suspensions after positive tests include Mariano Puerta (the 2005 French Open finalist) and Guillermo Canas. More recent suspensions have involved recreational drugs, which are also banned under the WADA code: Gasquet and Martina Hingis for cocaine. One tennis player, David Sebok, was the rare athlete who admitted to doping when he tested positive for four banned substances in 2004. He was suspended for two years.

Tom Perrotta is a senior editor at TENNIS magazine.

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