Reading the Readers: Nov. 6

Wednesday, November 06, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

The ATP’s World Tour Finals proceeds at a luxurious pace, doesn’t it? Two matches a day, all the way until the final, which isn’t played until Monday evening. That gives us some time to talk—about tennis, naturally. If you have a question or comment for this column, please email me at stignor@tennismagazine.com.

*****

Steve,

I know you wrote about the Viktor Troicki case before, but what do you think now, after his appeal? Do you agree with Novak [Djokovic] that the system doesn’t work? And don’t you think it’s wrong that Troicki should get so much more time than Marin Cilic, who actually had a positive test?—Ivan

As you say, after his win over Roger Federer last night, Djokovic said that he was disappointed that Troicki, his Serbian Davis Cup teammate, only had his 18-month suspension reduced to 12 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), rather than wiped away entirely. (It should be noted that Djokovic didn’t say Troicki was completely without fault in the situation.) Djokovic also said that after this, he doesn't trust tennis’ doping program anymore. 

I’ll start with the Troicki case specifically. When the suspension was announced, I thought that a ban was necessary, but 18 months was too long. I said at the time that nine months made more sense (I thought nine months also made sense in the Cilic case). But if you read the CAS ruling (find it here), it’s clear that 12 months is the minimum sentence that can be meted out if a player is found to have refused a drug test—that’s half of the maximum ban of two years. The logic for having a minimum ban for Troicki’s refusal, and not for Cilic’s positive test, is that we’ll never know if Troicki would have tested positive or not (Troicki’s test was for HGH, which leaves the system within 24 to 36 hours). In Cilic’s case, as the CAS says, the rules “accord a panel greater discretion as to mitigation where the substance in the athlete’s sample is found to be prohibited and where the athlete can demonstrate he did not intend to enhance his sport performance.” The fact that Troicki kept the testers from knowing whether he was clean or not counts against him.

In the end, the CAS panel reduced Troicki’s suspension as far as it could, without, as he wanted, throwing it out altogether. To me, this was the right decision. The CAS judges were more sympathetic to Troicki than the ITF was; the CAS found him “credible,” whereas the ITF seemed to believe he was just short of delusional. But the two panels interpreted the facts similarly. Each believed that there was a misunderstanding between Troicki and the doctor who was supposed to administer his blood test. While she didn't do everything she possibly could to make Troicki understand that he might be in trouble, he was also at fault. 

As the CAS put it, “The following constitutes an anti-doping violation: “Refusing or failing without compelling justification to submit a Sample.” Troicki, who has a fear of needles and wasn’t feeling well that day, admits that he refused to submit a sample, and that he continued to refuse even after the doctor tried to assure him that everything would be OK. He said his “compelling justification” was that the doctor eventually assured him that he wouldn’t face a sanction if he refused (the doctor says that’s not true). Troicki also claimed that she had only spent "10-15 minutes” trying to convince him to take the test. Yet none of this would have happened if he hadn’t refused to take it in the first place. As the ITF asserted, and the CAS agreed, it’s the player’s responsibility to know his duties under the anti-doping programme, rather than the doctor’s to make sure he understands them.

And it’s this last fact that scares Djokovic. 

“When you are randomly chosen to go and provide a test,” Djokovic said yesterday, “blood test or urine test, the representatives of WADA, anti-doping agency who are there in the tournament, are supposed to give you clear indications and explain to you the rules and regulations and what are the severe consequences...The representative, she didn’t do that in this case...And now it makes me nervous as a player to do any kind of test.”

Djokovic may not agree with the CAS’s decision, but the CAS agrees with him. At the end of its ruling, the panel made a note and a recommendation. It said that it “finds surprising that there is no provision in the [ITF] Programme requiring the DCO (the doctor administering the drug test) to call for the attendance of an ATP representative (for example, an ATP doctor) in any case where an athlete refuses or fails to submit a sample collection, for medical or other reasons, or to remind the athlete about his or her rights and duties and the possible consequences in refusing or failing to submit a sample.”

In Troicki’s case, no ATP representative was contacted who could have helped clear up the confusion between player and doctor. The judges are right; there should be another step in the process to make sure everyone understands each other, something that's especially important in a sport where so many languages are spoken. Troicki's situation wasn't helped by the fact that a Serbian player was talking to a Russian doctor in English.

The panel went on to say that doctors shouldn't just be encouraged, as they are now, to help the players know their anti-doping duties. It should be part of the job.

Djokovic appeared to be in no mood to be mollified yesterday, but I’m guessing those are the types of changes he would like to see. Carrying out the two CAS recommendations—or doing something along the lines of what they suggest—would help bring more clarity and accountability to the process, and make another Troicki-esque debacle less likely in the future.

*****

Steve,

With Rafa clinching the year-end No. 1 this week, it made me wonder how much that’s worth. Isn’t weeks at No. 1 more important? You can be a year-end No. 1 just because you happen to be No. 1 for a few weeks right at that time of year.—Barbara

Hmmm, I know I’m paranoid, but do I detect a new battlefield for the Federer-Nadal wars being staked out here? Nadal did clinch his third year-end No. 1 spot today, but as you may know, Federer is the all-time leader on the men’s side in weeks at No. 1, with 302, while Rafa is still back at 115. Of course, Federer is also ahead of Rafa on the year-end list; he’s finished there five times, tying him with Jimmy Connors for second all time, one behind Pete Sampras. 

This could be a Fedal battle for the future, but for now I’ll come back to your direct question. It’s true that with the weekly rolling ranking system, being No. 1 on November 15 isn’t any more or less difficult than being No. 1 on, say, July 4. In both cases, results go back 12 months. Jelena Jankovic became No. 1 on October 6, 2008, and lost that spot, for good, on February 2, 2009. Yet she’s still considered a year-end WTA No. 1. That said, there are reasons why the accomplishment usually has a special meaning.

The most important is that the players care about being the year-end top spot. During his prime, Federer would begin his season with two goals: Win Wimbledon and finish No. 1. This gave him a short-term and a long-term focus, and I think it helped with his consistency by keeping him from getting too focused on the week-to-week results (not that he had many bad results to focus on in those days). Before Federer, Pete Sampras made a special effort at the end of 1998 to make sure he became the year-end champ for a record sixth straight time. 

Second, there aren’t any fluke No. 1s these days, especially on the men’s side. In the past, players like Carlos Moya or Pat Rafter could ascend to the position for a brief time. Not anymore: Nobody besides Federer, Djokovic, or Nadal has been No. 1 for 10 years, and all three have been there for at least 100 weeks. You certainly can't say that Nadal didn’t deserve the honor in 2013. He took over No. 1 in the ATP race in May. The fact that Djokovic made such a great, late run to try to catch him only shows that finishing a season at the top means something to these guys. 

One more point. To me, the existence of the year-end No. 1 was another argument for shortening the schedule. The more we can see the tour as consisting of individual seasons, rather than just as an endless series of events with no breaks, the more valuable the year-end No. 1 position becomes. If each year is distinct, being the “champion” of those 12 months becomes a more meaningful accomplishment. I think today’s slightly shorter schedule does make a difference in that regard—it certainly beats the days when the World Tour Finals was played the following January.

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