Controversy of the Year: Doping Suspensions
With the 2013 tennis season in the past, it's time to dole out our annual awards. Look for the winners—for better or worse—throughout this week on TENNIS.com. (To see what's been unveiled thus far, click here.)
The 2013 season began with a sea change in player attitudes toward the game’s anti-doping efforts; by the end of the year, though, the tide was threatening to turn back in the other direction.
In the wake of Lance Armstrong’s public confession of PED use in January, many ATP players went from complaining bitterly about invasions of their privacy by testers to begging for more of them. Eleven months later, after watching a teammate suffer the consequences of bucking that system, one of those players, Novak Djokovic, claimed that he had lost all trust in the process. If the 2013 suspensions of Marin Cilic, Viktor Troicki, and Nuria Llagostera Vives proved anything, it’s that the game’s testing system remains a learning process for all concerned. Unfortunately, all concerned had to learn the their lessons the hard way this year.
Cilic and Llagostera Vives found out that making sure you know what’s in your body is not always as easy as it may seem. Llagostera Vives, a 35-year-old Spanish doubles specialist, claimed she had no idea how she tested positive for d-methamphetamine at the Bank of the West Classic, in Stanford, Calif. The positive test, and lack of explanation, earned her a two-year ban that may end her career. As for Cilic, he discovered the downside of letting your mother buy over-the-counter drugs for you in a foreign language. Through a Kafkaesque series of misunderstandings and mistranslations, the Croat ended up taking glucose tablets, purchased by his mom, that contained the banned substance nikethamide. After voluntarily spending four months on the sidelines, Cilic’s nine-month suspension was lifted. It was determined that he had not intended to enhance his performance with the glucose, and that he tested positive only for a lingering metabolite of nikethamide, which is legal when taken out of competition.
Troicki’s lesson was the hardest of all. The Serb refused to submit to a blood test after losing in Monte Carlo in April. After his own series of misunderstandings with the doctor who was assigned to administer his test, Troicki was given an 18-month ban, which was subsequently reduced to 12 months, the minimum allowed for the infraction. It wasn’t enough to keep Troicki from having to miss Serbia’s Davis Cup final, where his absence played a major role in the team’s defeat, and made his friend Djokovic question the fairness of the entire testing system.
What can we take away from all this, once the sound and fury has dissipated? On the negative side, Cilic’s case pointed up the danger of the “silent ban” in tennis. To start serving his ban voluntarily, he pulled out of Wimbledon, claiming a knee injury. Only through reports in the Croatian press did we learn about the suspension (Cilic denies he lied about his injury). Now fans have no idea whether any player’s injury claim is true. The game would be better off if the silent ban was suspended, indefinitely.
While it’s too late for Troicki and his teammates, his case, and Djokovic’s reaction to it, may do more good than harm for their fellow players in the long run. Djokovic was wrong to criticize the doctor in Troicki’s case as sharply as he did, but he was right about wanting to clear up any similar confusion for himself and others in the future. At the moment, post-Troicki, it would be hard to imagine another player refusing to take a drug test, or at least being very clear about what the penalty might be. Let’s hope that with more clarity and accountability from both sides, the tide toward cooperation between players and doping authorities moves back in the right direction in 2014.