Tennis players missing drugs tests
➤ Lockdown causes dramatic fall in samples being taken ➤ ITF admits combined total has slumped during pandemic
Drugs testing in tennis has fallen by alarming levels during the Covid-19 pandemic, The Daily Telegraph can reveal.
As the sport prepares for the start of the French Open on Sunday, an investigation by this newspaper has found that some of the world’s leading players were barely tested in the five months between the suspension of the tours in early March, and the Western & Southern Open last month.
The International Tennis Federation – the world governing body that conducts the vast majority of tests in the sport – has also admitted that the combined totals of tests from the second and third quarter of the year are unlikely to match the 1,935 samples collected in the first quarter.
The revelations will lead to concerns that players could have exploited the lack of testing by using illegal substances during the pandemic, either to build up training volumes or help recovery from injury.
The Telegraph spoke to a wide range of players at this week’s ATP event in Hamburg to gauge how frequently they had been tested during lockdown.
Kei Nishikori, the former world No4, and rising talents Felix Auger Aliassime and Dominik Koepfer reported that they had performed only one test in that largely tournament-free period. Serena Williams has also been tested only once by the US Anti-Doping Agency in 2020.
For purposes of comparison, Nishikori – who bases himself at the IMG Academy in Florida – underwent 29 tests last year from the ITF alone, of which 17 were “out of competition” (this category, rather misleadingly, includes tests conducted at tournament venues up to 11.59pm on the night before the first ball is struck).
Another notable contrast can be spotted in the testing record of German No2 Jan-Lennard Struff. He was tested 31 times by the ITF last year, but was asked to complete only three tests between March and the beginning of the Hamburg event – a period of more than six months.
“There were no tests between March and the end of May,” Struff said. “NADA [Germany’s anti-doping agency] kept us players updated on that. We had to continue the ‘whereabouts’ system. Then, after the break, they suggested a self-test and gave us a manual on how to do it at home. But it was not mandatory. After May, I was tested two times in Germany in the morning at home in a short period of time. I was also tested by the ITF in the bubble before the US Open.”
One player – Tommy Paul of the United States – also revealed that he had not received a single visit at
home from dope testers since the start of lockdown, and said that the same was true of his housemate Reilly Opelka. There is no suggestion that any of these players have committed any wrongdoing.
Now that tour-level events are resuming, the ITF testing programme is beginning to pick up volume again. Stuart Miller, the ITF’s director of integrity, insisted that the governing body “did try to maintain a presence throughout the lockdown” but acknowledged it had not been able to sustain the testing levels from the first three months of the year during the height of the pandemic. Miller also indicated that the number of blood tests – a more sophisticated anti-doping tool than urine testing – had fallen as a percentage of the next batch of figures, which are expected to be released at the end of the month. “It is more invasive, and that is something we had to be very careful about,” he said. “It’s easier to maintain the appropriate social distancing when collecting urine than blood.”
Boris Becker, the six-time grand slam winner, urged the tennis authorities to restore testing to prepandemic levels in order to ensure the sport retained its credibility in the eyes of the public.
“The world is special at the moment but tennis should be a role model in testing and it is important to have many tests again in every country,” he said. “We now have to test more again.”
In normal circumstances, the ITF would expect to perform about 85 per cent of tests, with NADO (national anti-doping organisations) doing the rest. But that outside support collapsed completely between March and June, and has been slow to resume.
In Spain, for instance, the director of the AEPSAD – the national anti-doping agency – announced at the end of March that the national test programme would come to a complete halt during lockdown. AEPSAD told The Telegraph that its programme had resumed in June, with 550 tests since then across all sports. Again, though, blood testing has been affected by the national rule stating that only doctors can collect samples.
The slowdown in testing predates lockdown, and affects all sports. In Great Britain, for instance, the only
figures available for 2020 cover the first quarter of the year, and show that UK Anti-Doping collected just 126 tests, of which none were in tennis. In 2019, the first quarter showed a little over 2,000 tests, of which five were in tennis.
Daniil Medvedev, the world No5, said that he had experienced a similar situation in France, where he trains at a tennis academy in Cannes.
“I was in France during the lockdown and the doping control officers couldn’t come during that time,” Medvedev said. “It was communicated that way.”
After lockdown, Medvedev added, he had been tested once in France. Before and during the US Open in New York, he was tested twice by the ITF.
NADO tests are particularly valuable because they are taken out of competition, and thus have an element of surprise not present in those collected at an event. Typically, in-competition tests are carried out via a urine sample when a player loses – or, in the best-case scenario, after they lift the title.
Even before the pandemic had stacked the odds even further in this hi-tech game of cops-and-robbers, tennis was already lagging behind many other sports in its defences. In 2018, for instance, a total of 6,643 tennis tests were carried out worldwide – a long way behind swimming (32,309) and cycling (25,391).
Overlooked: Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, the world No5, was not tested during lockdown while based in France