When the story broke that the United States Anti-Doping Agency had banned Lance Armstrong for life and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles, the shock here in Austin, TX, his hometown, was palpable. There were, and still are, seemingly more questions than answers surrounding this controversy. Did he deserve to be stripped of his titles? Is his legacy forever tainted? Does this now diminish a once undoubtedly epic achievement? To answer that last question, the all too well documented widespread use of steroids in cycling seemed to have leveled the playing field while Armstrong was competing. Especially when you consider that each one of Armstrong’s titles will go to a competitor with doping scandals of their own. Steroids in sports such as cycling, baseball, and numerous Olympic events, have not only left a stain on the record books, but also tarnished the integrity of each sport as a whole. With all that being said, is it safe to say that professional tennis does not have a problem with steroids?
In a time when newfangled equipment, revolutionary medical practices, and extreme workouts are the norm, it is understandable that players across all sports are achieving things once thought impossible. I’m inclined to believe that because of these changes players have had to adapt their game, not the other way around. Tactical strategists like Michael Chang, Andre Agassi, and John McEnroe have been replaced by heavy hitters such as Djokovic, Del Potro, and Berdych. Because of the aforementioned modernization of sports, players are hitting the ball harder than ever, transforming tennis into a “who can hit it harder” baseline game. In an interview with Men’s Journal, McEnroe attributes the use of lightweight rackets, and subsequently quicker rackets speeds, as the reason for the new pace of the game. He even attests that if players back then, such as Bjorn Borg, would have been able to take advantage of such technology they would have hit the ball just as hard. Some people however, do not believe that racket technology is the only factor contributing to the high powered tennis exhibited in the modern game.
Yannick Noah, the 1983 French Open Champion, came under fire for his comments regarding steroids, specifically in Spanish circles. In 2011 he wrote a not-so-subtle editorial in the French Newspaper Le Monde, in which he suggested Spain was suddenly a tennis powerhouse because of the use of “magic potions”. Apart from blanked statements from Noah, concern that radiated throughout tennis after the Armstrong allegations, may soon turn into genuine panic. Luis Garcia del Moral (pictured above), the doctor banned by the US Anti-Doping agency for orchestrating a “team wide doping program” for the US Postal Service cycling team, was also the owner of the leading tennis academy in Spain, TenisVal academy. He also worked with top players Sara Errani, Dinara Safina, and David Ferrer, who have since publicly distanced themselves from del Moral and his academy once word of his ban surfaced. To say that Noah and others were barking up the right tree would be an understatement.
Though many, including Rafa Nadal, would point to stringent drug testing throughout the season to silence critics, cycling has proven that methodical testing does not necessarily translate to a clean sport. In light of the Lance Armstrong decision some of the top tennis players believe that their sport could use an anti-doping overhaul. Andy Murray was quoted as saying “A lot of (testing) has been urine, not so many blood tests. I think tennis is a clean sport, but the more we can do to prove that all the time is good”. Roger Federer also came out just last month claiming that he has not been tested as much as he once was in the early 2000’s and would like to see more test put into place.
History has also shown that the sport has not been particularly strict when positive tests do occur. In Andre Agassi’s autobiography he explained that he failed a urine test for crystal meth in 1997 but the ATP dismissed it and did not enforce the 3 month ban. Though this was not steroid related, it is unsurprising the sport was unwilling to tarnish one their biggest names with drug allegations. Players such as Petr Korda and Greg Rusedski, both former (as well as brief) top 5 players in the world, have tested positive for steroids in the past. Though these players were disciplined, they did not receive full suspensions nor were these positive tests brought to the public’s knowledge until months afterwards.
It’s clear that steroid use was, and may well still be, happening within the sport, but the ATP claims to have put the necessary test in place to combat it. Just by looking at the numbers however, it is abundantly clear that the ATP could be doing far more. It is publicly stated that the ITF (International Tennis Federation) in compliance with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) spends approximately $1.5 million on steroid testing every year. That might seem like a lot, but when you consider that the ATP doled out nearly $50 million to the top ten earners this year, that figure seems paltry. Compare that to the amount of money Texas spends on steroid testing for high school sports, $6 Million dollars over two years, and the ITF’s figure is laughable. If Texas is willing to utilize $6 Million out of its states budget you’d be inclined to believe the cash cows that are the ATP, WTA (Women’s Tennis Association), and ITF would splash the cash to ensure they are doing everything possible to combat the use of steroids. Apparently not.
I believe former US men’s tennis player Todd Martin put it perfectly when he said stricter steroid testing is “the only way to begin to cut that gap down between the science of cheaters and the science of testing, and even then, I don’t know how much it’s going to be able to be caught up with”. If players on and off the tour are even acknowledging there might be a problem then the ATP should act accordingly, even if to simply quell growing speculation. On one hand it’s naive to think that there is no doping going on in tennis, but on the other there is no concrete evidence to suggest there is any problem at all. At the very least, the Lance Armstrong case should be a warning to professional tennis; to the passive observer there may not be a problem, but ten years down the road you never know who’s going to start digging.