x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

After cycling and Armstrong, tennis could hold centre court

Report about Lance Armstrong's drug usage has brought to light the necessity for tennis to come clean as a sport, writes Ahmed Rizvi.

The Argentine Mariano Puerta, right, a French Open runner-up in 2005, was punished for taking a performance-enhancer.
The Argentine Mariano Puerta, right, a French Open runner-up in 2005, was punished for taking a performance-enhancer.

The issue of drug cheats has become a topic of discussion in almost every sport since a 1,000-page report on the cyclist Lance Armstrong was made public.

Tennis has not been immune to speculation of drug cheats within its ranks, with James Blake and Yannick Noah expressing their suspicions.

"In tennis, I'm sure there are guys who are doing it, getting away with it and getting ahead of the testers," said Blake, the American veteran, during the US Open last month, adding that a top prize of US$1.9 million (Dh6.98m) for the winner was sufficient to tempt some to bend the rules.

Noah made more specific allegations last year and the Frenchman asked the same questions last month after the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) banned Armstrong for life and stripped him of his seven Tour de France titles.

Writing in the French newspaper Le Monde last year, Noah had claimed Spanish players across all sports were consuming "magic potion". The Spaniard Rafael Nadal was, of course, not pleased about the allegations and called them "stupid".

But six years back, most people would have been similarly offended had anyone suggested that Armstrong, a hero to millions, was a drug cheat.

One of the most prominent figures in the USADA report was the Spanish doctor Luis Garcia del Moral, the team physician for Armstrong's US Postal Service team between 1999 and 2003.

According to USADA documents, published by the Wall Street Journal last month, "Numerous riders will testify that Dr Del Moral gave to them, encouraged them to use and/or assisted them in using doping products and/or prohibited methods".

"You're not a real professional if you don't take drugs," the doctor allegedly said. And he was involved with tennis as well, working at an academy in Valencia, Spain. The former women's world No 1 Dinara Safina, the current WTA world No 7 Sara Errani and the men's No 5 David Ferrer are among those who have spent time at that academy.

That does not mean they are involved in doping, but it would be naive to believe tennis is completely clean. Stuart Miller, the executive director of the International Tennis Federation's Science and Technical Department concedes that but said, "We have no evidence" to assume doping is endemic within tennis.

The ITF's doping programme operates under the World Anti-Doping Agency code and they have conducted an average of 2,000 tests every year since 2007. In comparison, Major League Baseball conducts more than 15,000 tests per year.

The ITF's anti-doping budget is about $1.6m, while USADA gets $15m every year. Those figures suggest tennis could do a bit more to combat doping.

Since 1995, 63 tennis players - including Martina Hingis, Petr Korda, Richard Gasquet and Mariano Puerta - have failed drug tests and served suspensions. But as the Armstrong scandal shows, there could still be some getting away with it.

arizvi@thenational.ae

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