Authors: Rio Sports
In tennis, cleanliness is next to wealthiness. Announcing record levels of sponsorship deals back in 2015, the ATP chairman Chris Kermode explained: “People see [tennis] as a clean sport, it’s a great product with great athletes and I think tennis is in the best place it’s ever been.”
Why do people see tennis as a clean sport? The simple answer is that very few players ever test positive for banned substances. Except in faintly glamorous ways, like when Richard Gasquet ingested cocaine from kissing a lady all night in a Miami nightclub. Richard, you’ve tested positive for being a Mr Loverman.
Of course, Kermode’s statement was made before Maria Sharapova, then the highest profile star in tennis, was caught taking the banned substance meldonium for … hang on, I always want to get this right … diabetes symptoms and heart problems.
If you are of a certain age, you may only be able to say those words in the tone adopted by Ferris Bueller’s headmaster when he is told of a student’s excuse for not being in school. “Dead … grandmother?” inquires Ed Rooney, his eyebrows hovering somewhere near his hairline. Diabetes symptoms and … heart problems?
Happily, that little local difficulty is all over now. Maria is back in the game, and her stint at the US Open saw her popped straight back onto Arthur Ashe.
When Caroline Wozniacki had the temerity to ask why she was being showcased in the circumstances, Sharapova mocked her. All that was left was for the synchronised release of Maria’s autobiography Unstoppable, in which the woman who US sportswriter Kavitha Davidson has majestically dubbed “Tennis Becky” opted to bang on about Serena Williams’s “thick arms” and “thick legs”. And not the fact that Serena found her eminently stoppable.
Anyway, the above should be plenty to draw some lively correspondence from Sharapova’s fandom, who are slightly quicker to death threats than even 12-year-old One Direction fans. As for the sport of tennis in general, one can’t help feeling it nurses similar levels of delusion.
Amongst all the sports classed under the World Anti-Doping Agency’s code as summer Olympic sports, including swimming and track and field, tennis is by far the least curious. For a long time, tennis chose the absolute cheapest level of screening available in Wada-accredited labs. Even today, 80 per cent of samples analysed come from in-competition testing, widely derided by those serious about anti-doping.
Tennis players are tested at the levels of athletes in sports which rake in just that bit less cash and coverage. The likes of handball. And kayaking. Tennis samples result in a positive for any sort of banned substance at one third the rate of other summer Olympic sports – and only 40 per cent of the players these tests relate to are suspended.
The biological passport has not produced a single instance of doping. A certain stripe of tennis fan would insist that’s because tennis players don’t cheat, though those remotely acquainted with the scale and methods of modern doping would be more inclined to cavil that tennis players don’t get caught.
And the authorities do make it easy not to. Experts regard the testing methods on which tennis relies as highly questionable, primarily because the sport doesn’t chase with any determination after EPO and synthetic testosterone, the two substances thought most likely to be used by modern dopers and to produce the biggest benefits.
Last year, an excellent investigation by ESPN laid bare the scale of – how to put this? – the insouciance. A supplier of PEDs to “12-15 current and former pro male tennis players” scoffed that the sport’s entire anti-doping programme was “Mickey Mouse” and “something [only] to appease.” A defensive ITF anti-doping chief Stuart Miller told ESPN it would cost between $1.2m (£900,000) and $1.6m a year to test every sample for EPO or HGH.
As it is, the ITF spends $4m a year on anti-doping. Over $50m is awarded in prize money at the US Open alone, with each champion this year taking home $3.7m. Given how much financial value is placed on the appearance of cleanliness, you can see why the sport might think this economic model works.
And yet, Ferris Bueller’s headmaster was of course quite right to suspect that the students in question were neither ill nor recently bereaved, and that they were simply having – spoiler alert – a day off. He wasn’t thanked for his persistence in doubting them, however, and his doomed pursuit of the truth would see him attempt to break and enter, get attacked by a dog and suffer the final indignity of having to board his own school bus – bleeding and dishevelled – and clock the graffiti above the rear-view mirror which read: ROONEY EATS IT. Fair enough. We’re all rooting for Ferris.
If you question the integrity of tennis, you will be issued plenty of invitations to eat it. It’s difficult to escape the conclusion that an awful lot of people simply do not want to know. Neither tennis fans, nor tennis administrators. Quite how long the latter can maintain this stance is unclear, but the Sharapova scandal has been effectively ridden out. Even so they, like their counterparts elsewhere, are presiding over a sport where commentators repeatedly – and increasingly – find themselves using words like “unbelievable” and “unprecedented” and phrases like “just doesn’t get tired”. I envy the authorities for apparently believing their sport is clean –but curse them for progressively ruining the enjoyment of those who know it simply can’t be.
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