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Doping, Tennis, Nadal: A Connection?

Rafael Nadal’s prolonged absence from the tour has raised suspicions, and the ITF's anti-doping program does little to reassure, writes Blair Henley.

By Blair Henley

Rafael Nadal Australian Open 2008
Rafael Nadal at the 2008 Australian Open
(October 5, 2012) -- Baseball players testifying in front of Congress. Sprinters banned from Olympic competition. Accusations against cyclist after cyclist.

The recent revelations all but confirming Lance Armstrong’s doping history should have come as no surprise. Now that the sports superstar has officially 
stopped fighting the doping allegations and has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, it may be time to start looking at athletes’ claims of innocence with a touch more cynicism.

That brings us to the case of Rafael Nadal. Rumblings within the tennis industry suggest his prolonged injury layoff may not be what it seems. Is it possible that Rafa is, in fact, serving a so-called “silent” doping ban?

We’re all familiar with the knee issues that have plagued the King of Clay throughout his career. In fact, in four of the last five years, Nadal has missed at least one tournament due to pain in that pesky left knee. We also know that the Spaniard has been dogged by doping rumors since his bulging biceps burst on the scene in 2001.

Just last year, former French Open champ Yannick Noah penned a French newspaper column alleging widespread doping among Spanish athletes. Not surprisingly, Nadal, who has also spoken out in defense of Tour de France-stripped Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador, called Noah’s comments “totally stupid,” citing the comprehensive drug testing in professional tennis.

And Nadal’s right, of course (about the testing part, anyway). The International Tennis Federation (ITF), which oversees anti-doping efforts for both the WTA and the ATP tours, is intent on creating the deterrents necessary to avoid a Major League Baseball-esque public shaming.

Like all signatories under the World Anti-Doping (WADA) umbrella, the ITF testing program “operates throughout the year, both in and out of competition,” said ITF anti-doping manager Dr. Stuart Miller. Players have no advance notice before testing, and a select group known as the “international registered testing pool” must provide their whereabouts year-round. That group is comprised of, but not limited to, athletes ranked inside the top 50 and those returning from a retirement or extended absence.

World No. 4 Andy Murray has commented multiple times regarding the inconveniences of life swimming in the registered testing pool. More than once he’s been awakened by an early morning visit from ITF-contracted testers.

"When you're going to the toilet and they're staring at you, in your own home, it's just quite a strange feeling,” he said.

The element of surprise is the most effective weapon the ITF has working in its favor. According to ITF website, Nadal was tested at least seven times in competition and between one and three times out of competition (ITF statistics only give testing ranges) in 2011. He would not have known the timing of the test or whether testers were collecting a blood or urine sample.

Though Miller maintains that the ITF maximizes its resources, he also admits there are limitations on the anti-doping program’s reach.

“[To] the extent that the system allows, we are definitely on the cutting edge,” he said. “If the argument is being made that we’re not collecting enough samples, well everybody would always want to collect more. There’s always going to be a financial constraint that exists, and it depends on that constraint to determine how much you can do. It would be great to test every player, every day, but that’s simply not feasible.”

So the question becomes, do those limitations open the door wide enough for a top player to slip through?

Consider the fact that Nadal made no mention of his bum knee before or after his shocking second-round loss to 100th-ranked Lukas Rosol at Wimbledon. Though the omission could have certainly been an act of sportsmanship, he has not hesitated to disclose his condition in the past. In a September interview with the Daily Mail, Nadal revealed a very different story regarding the state of his knee in London.

“My practice before Wimbledon was terrible. I played the first round with injections; otherwise it would have been impossible. That doesn’t help the knee.”

On July 4th, six days after the Wimbledon loss, Nadal’s camp announced he would be out for 15 days due to tendinitis in his left knee. The pain forced him to withdraw from the Olympics, but according to his Facebook page, Rafa was back on the court in early August. Things were looking promising for his appearance at the U.S. Open until he announced the he was suffering from Hoffa’s syndrome (an impingement of the fat pad beneath the patella).

The diagnosis changed once again in early September. Now he’s rehabbing a partial tear in his patella tendon. Despite committing to play an exhibition tournament in late December, Nadal seemingly quashed any hope of a year-end Tour Championships appearance.

“I hope you see me in Australia,” he said in his Daily Mail interview. “That is the biggest goal for me, to come back just before then in Qatar, but I cannot say for sure it is going to happen.”

Toni and Rafael Nadal
Rafael Nadal with his coach and uncle Toni
But confusion ensued once again when his coach and uncle, Toni Nadal, spoke to Fox Sports.

“In 15 days, Rafa will resume training in time for him to aim to play in the Masters and the final of the Davis Cup.”

Nadal’s knee-injury timeline has been a head-scratcher if nothing else.

Is a Cover-Up Conceivable?

If a player tests positive for a banned substance (and does not qualify for a
Therapeutic Use Exemption), the ITF sends the individual a letter detailing the offense, explaining where and when the sample was collected, and listing the potential consequences. At that time, the player can choose to admit the charge or contest it in front of an independent tribunal (usually chaired by a lawyer and made up of experts in medicine and/or science). If a player is then found to be at fault following tribunal hearings, a suspension would be issued based on the evidence a player provides in his or her defense. It’s also important to note that a player can be barred from play pending a decision by the tribunal. This is known as a provisional suspension.

The standard doping sanction is two years; a time period that can, and often is, adjusted on a case-by-case basis. A positive test is only made public if and when a ban is handed down. The ITF strives to reach a decision within 60 days of notifying a player of a positive test, though that time period can vary.

Petr Korda
 Peter Korda
For instance, Petr Korda famously won the Australian Open in 1998 only to test positive for nandrolone (an anabolic steroid) at Wimbledon of that year. The news was not made public until nearly six months later.
In the case of a “guilty verdict,” the charges go public whether the accused is Rafael Nadal or an unknown player ranked 500th in the world according to Miller, who has headed the ITF anti-doping arm since 2006.

“There are no circumstances at any time that any favoritism, special treatment, discretion has been exercised as far as I’m aware since I’ve been involved, though I can only speak for myself,” he said. “As evidence of that, I’ll point to [the banning of] Martina Hingis, Mariano Puerta, and Richard Gasquet, all of whom have been ranked in the top 10 in singles.”

If, however, a player is found to have no fault or negligence after a positive test, he or she is effectively exonerated. This means a player could test positive, fight the charges, and have them dropped all without the public’s knowledge. If he or she is placed on a provisional suspension during that time but is then exonerated, the break from play could be explained any way the player chooses.

American Robert Kendrick’s positive test on May 22, 2011, was not made public until two months later on July 29th when the ITF released news of his one-year suspension. ITF documents indicate he volunteered to be placed on a provisional suspension that took effect on June 17th.

If the tribunal cleared Kendrick of all charges, he would have returned to the tour with a clean slate (and no announcement made). But based on the current anti-doping rules and regulations carried out by the ITF, there is no way an actual doping ban be could be handed down and served without the public’s knowledge.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘silent ban’ as far as I’m concerned,” Miller confirmed.

So a silent ban may be an impossibility. Unannounced provisional suspensions, however, happen all the time. Though unlikely, Rafael Nadal could conceivably be serving such a suspension.

Asking Unpopular Questions

It's understandable that Nadal fans want to take his knee issues at face value. (Especially when he says heartwarming things like: “I always want to be honest with myself and to those who have faith in me.”) But observers with knowledge of systematic doping in several other sports find it prudent to ask the difficult, and in this case unpopular, questions.
And yes, the questions could easily be asked regarding several other top players on the ATP and WTA tours in addition to Nadal.

Given that WADA Code allows signatories to make their own decision on whether or not to announce positive tests when they occur, it seems the ITF could halt the rumor mill for good by agreeing to make all positive tests public whether they result in a suspension or not. Miller says they have decided against taking that route “because ‘positive tests’ are subject to an initial review which may reveal reasons why it should not be taken forward, such as the existence of a valid Therapeutic Use Exemption.”

Regardless, a look at the WADA statistics between 2007 and 2011 paints a puzzling picture. The ITF reported 53 positive tests (or Adverse Analytical Findings) but only 21 Anti-Doping Rule Violations during that time. As the anonymous writer and curator of the widely read blog Tennis Has a Steroid Problem points out, this raises a number of questions.

Rafael Nadal Roger Federer 2005 French Open
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal at the 2005 French Open
“What accounts for the difference between positive tests and violations? Did players have Therapeutic Use Exemptions allowing them to use a banned substance? Did their 'B' Sample test negative? Did a tribunal find that the players did not commit a violation? If so, what was the reason for their finding?”

Described by Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim as “seditious,” the Steroid Problem blog receives an average of 30,000 page views per month and plays host to many tennis fans looking to discuss their own conspiracy theories with like-minded individuals. The blog’s writer, however, sticks to the facts, lobbying only for greater transparency from the ITF.

As Clean As It Seems?

A 2009 Slate story asked this question about the game of tennis: “Can any sport possibly be that clean?”

To put it simply, no one really knows. Though Miller did have this to say about the propensity for systematic doping in tennis: “In all of those sports [cycling, baseball, sprinting], you are trying to maximize some performance variable like stamina, endurance, strength, speed, or power. In tennis that is not necessarily the case…You need great technique, and you’ve got to understand tennis strategy over and above the dominant component of strength, speed, and power which those other sports have. The point being that there’s not one group of prohibited substances that alone can guarantee success in tennis.”

Underestimating the dopers, perhaps?

Miller also has an answer for those considering the effect a five hour Grand Slam final might have on a player’s body.

“Yes, you have some long tennis matches, but if you look at how long the ball is in play in a tennis match, it’s somewhere between 7 and 11 minutes per hour,” he said. “In grass court tennis, in a five hour match, the ball might be in play for 35 minutes.”

It’s a baffling philosophy to some who believe enhancing even one of the skills needed to play tennis, whether it be speed, strength, endurance, or even recovery, is enough to create a significant advantage over an opponent. In fact, respected coach and TV analyst Darren Cahill voiced his opinion earlier this year in regard to similar remarks Miller made to multiple other publications.

“I believe our testing program is a good one and tough to beat…but I don’t agree with [Miller’s] assessment,” Cahill said on Twitter.

To be fair, Miller acknowledges the possibility of doping in tennis, as evidenced by the 63 Anti-Doping Rule Violations the ITF has uncovered over the past 17 years. He just doesn’t believe current evidence supports the existence of systematic abuse.

“A philosophy that there is systematic doping would be more founded on a belief that the use of prohibited substances is necessary to reach the top,” insists Miller.

If the ITF had unlimited funds, there would undoubtedly be an increase in out of competition testing, (which in 2011 accounted for just 216 of the 2,150 total tests), as well as an increase in blood testing.

Blood specimens are currently tested for hemoglobin-based oxygen carriers and HGH, but samples of the blood variety only accounted for around six percent of the total number of tests administered in 2011 – a shortcoming currently being addressed by the ITF.

The Verdict

Given the current limitations of the ITF anti-doping program, it’s impossible to prove or disprove the existence of systematic doping in tennis. However, the circumstantial evidence reminds us to be, if not cynical, maybe a bit more skeptical.

In his autobiography, Andre Agassi admitted avoiding a doping suspension by falsely claiming the meth he ingested came from his assistant’s spiked drink.

Brisbane airport authorities caught Wayne Odesnik with medical paraphernalia and eight vials of HGH in 2010. Even after pleading guilty, the ITF deferred the second half of the American’s two-year suspension.

With examples like these, doesn’t it also seem plausible that one of the most recognized tennis players in history could avoid a suspension by claiming he was injected with HGH in his sleep by a disgruntled employee? Possible, albeit fictitious, scenarios abound.

It’s also worth considering evidence of doping outside of the sport. Are tennis players so different from the baseball players, cyclists, and sprinters that have considered performance enhancing drugs to be a calculated risk?

Then you must wonder to what lengths profiting parties will go in an attempt to cover up wrongdoing. After San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera recently tested positive for a synthetic testosterone, he allegedly enlisted help in creating a fake website that sold a fictitious product on which he planned to pin his positive test. MLB officials quickly exposed the desperate cover-up effort.

It would be nice to believe these are all isolated incidents, but with mass amounts of money at stake, the odds of that are slim.

As for Nadal, there is no solid proof he is serving a provisional suspension as he awaits news of a possible ban. As far as we know, he spends time each day rehabbing in the pool or at the gym, enjoying time with his family in his free time (at least that’s what his Facebook page would suggest). Ironically, he even filmed a Spanish anti-doping ad posted on YouTube just days ago.

It is indeed unfortunate that the current anti-doping system allows for rampant speculation regarding players’ integrity. But it’s also unfortunate that Lance Armstrong took over 500 drug tests without failing one. It’s no wonder even casual observers doubt the ITF’s ability to stay ahead of the doping technology being used throughout the sports world.

As thrilling as it is to watch the seemingly inhuman athleticism of so many in pro tennis, it’s naïve not to ask questions of an extended absence from the tour in a world where performance enhancing drugs and blood doping run rampant. With wisps of smoke in the air, perhaps there is more fire than some would like to admit.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)


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