- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- Once again, a law enforcement agency has proven more effective in rooting out a doping suspect in sport than anti-doping tests themselves.
Cycling, baseball and track and field fans are familiar with this phenomenon, having observed federal investigations and police and customs raids sprung open the Pandora's Boxes of the BALCO and Festina scandals, among others. But it's new territory for tennis, where the handful of cases over the past few years have been initiated by a positive test.
Friday, players and administrators were digesting the announcement that Australian customs officials had found eight vials of human growth hormone in the luggage of American player Wayne Odesnik last January when Odesnik entered the country to play in a tournament in Brisbane. The routine search is likely to bring tennis' anti-doping program under increased scrutiny.
Odesnik pleaded guilty and was fined $8,320. He faces a two-year suspension under the provisions of the World Anti-Doping Agency code. The International Tennis Federation will conduct an initial investigation and most likely would handle any subsequent adjudication hearing, although it is possible that anti-doping authorities in Australia or the United States could also take jurisdiction. Australian officials notified the ITF of Odesnik's pending offense when it happened, but the ITF had to wait until the legal case ran its course before taking any action.
Ranked 98th in the world, the 24-year-old, left-handed journeyman had played sparingly this season. Despite his airport bust, he played in Brisbane, losing in the quarterfinals. He has won only two of seven matches since and lost in the first round of qualifying here at the Sony Ericsson Open on Monday.
Odesnik was being coached part time by former top-10 player Guillermo Canas of Argentina, who himself served a doping suspension -- reduced from two years to 15 months because of mitigating circumstances -- after testing positive for a diuretic considered a masking agent. In a bizarre twist, Canas held a previously scheduled news conference to announce his retirement Friday just hours after the Odesnik story broke. "I'm surprise[d] like you guys,'' said Canas, who added he had just learned of the case.
Rajeev Ram, the University of Illinois alum and doubles specialist who has recently made inroads in singles as well, lost to Odesnik in the first round at Delray Beach, Fla. in February -- nearly two months after customs officials found the HGH in Odesnik's belongings. Ram said he was stunned at the news but doesn't resent the fact that Odesnik was still able to compete.
"As far as I know, he hasn't failed a drug test,'' Ram told me by telephone. "But from what I understand, he'll pay the price one way or the other. It was more shock than anything. I just saw him here [in Miami] a couple of days ago.
"I really appreciate the strict rules and the efforts to keep the sport clean.''
James Blake, a longtime ATP Players Council member, said the news was tough to hear but sadly to be expected in an elite competitive environment.
"I wouldn't say shocked is the word, because sports is a business and people are trying to find ways to get ahead and that's unfortunate,'' Blake told a small group of reporters after losing his second-round match Friday night. "I wish it didn't happen in sports, but I think we're all realistic in the fact that it does happen and we do the best possible job of policing. I hope it doesn't sully our sport as much. You want to feel like you're playing on a fair playing field. I've always felt we have in the ATP.
Blake said he knows Odesnik in passing and called him "a nice kid, but it's the same thing you always hear about, that the criminal next door seemed like a nice guy until they found something going on. There's probably only 10 guys I know really well. Other than that, they're all acquaintances.
"I was at No. 140 in the world for a while, I was at 150. I wanted to get better, and I wanted to be in these kinds of tournaments, I wanted to be in the finals of tournaments, I wanted to be in big matches. But if I didn't get there, I wasn't going to do anything to my body first of all to be unfair to the other players, unfair to the sport that I love and possibly to do harm to my body in the future.''
Sam Querrey, who also was eliminated Friday, had an uncomplicated reaction. "[Odesnik] messed up there, and he's got to take the consequences,'' he said. "Hopefully he'll learn his lesson. It's pretty easy to not cheat. I don't know why some guys do. It's pretty easy to put food and water into your body and not inject things.''
We don't know if Odesnik has been tested this season; those statistics won't be released by the ITF until next year. We don't know if this is the first or the 50th time he might have been fooling around with performance-enhancing substances. But we do know this: He was tested only once by the ITF in 2009, at the U.S. Open. He was tested twice in 2008 -- at the World Team Cup in Germany and at the French Open, where he reached the third round.
Efforts to reach Odesnik for comment were unsuccessful.
Tennis, like other sports, has shifted to a targeted approach in testing. The ITF tests at its own events, the Grand Slams, Davis Cup and Fed Cup, and handles testing for the ATP and WTA under contracts that will expire in 2011 and 2012, respectively. The target pool consists roughly of the top 50 singles players and top 10 doubles players on each tour, along with players deemed to be "at-risk'' because they are on or returning from long breaks due to injury; have risen rapidly in the rankings; have just come out of retirement; have a past doping conviction; or have become persons of interest to the ITF because of inside information.
A player like Odesnik, who has struggled to crack the top 100 in recent seasons, would be less likely to get tested than more accomplished athletes. One big downside of a targeted program is that players can read the stats on the Web just like anyone else, and gauge their chances of getting away with something.
The two top men in the sport, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, were tested a dozen times apiece in competition last year by the ITF. Each was tested once out of competition. Both were listed among 49 players who missed an out of competition test in 2009, although the ITF later removed that portion of the statistics from its report. The report did not distinguish between players who were not where they said they would be during the one-hour period they are obligated to be available for testing each day, and players who were visited by testers outside that 60 minutes, in which case the test is not counted as missed. Players are not sanctioned unless they miss three official tests.
In all, the ITF conducted 2,126 tests, 154 of them out of competition, in 2009, with a testing budget of about $1.5 million. Those numbers aren't much different from the two previous years. The only change is that the ITF is trying to spread its out-of-competition testing and not limit it to the short official offseason. Players are also subject to testing from their national anti-doping agencies, and WADA does some testing in countries that don't have national ADAs.
The number that will stand out to the cynics in the crowd -- and I count myself among them -- is the low number of tests for the red blood cell booster, erythropoietin, better known as EPO, which aids in oxygen processing and pumps up both stamina and the ability to recover between strenuous efforts.
The ITF conducted only 21 EPO tests in all of 2009, none out of competition. Tennis may not require continuous motion like a bike race or a marathon, but the physical pounding of the modern game, the hot, humid conditions present during much of the season, the length of matches and the practically year-round schedule all add up to a sport in which endurance comes in very handy.
I think the number is ludicrously low, and I've said as much to Stuart Miller, the ITF's head of science and technical who oversees anti-doping policy. Miller, a biomechanics expert by trade, has defended those numbers several times in our conversations, most recently earlier this month, saying that what the ITF has observed in blood screenings and recent history justifies putting more detection efforts into steroid and stimulant testing than EPO.
"We're never going to be complacent, and I would never say there's no EPO use in tennis,'' Miller said. "We're keeping our eye on it.''
In an ideal world, tennis would test every player every week of the year, but no sport has the money or the logistical means to do that. Cycling comes closest, but only a few top athletes log 50-plus tests over the course of a season. And look what all that testing has gotten them -- public relations misery that has only recently turned the corner to admiration for the sport's efforts.
Tennis has made a lot of progress since the late 1990s, when testing was spotty and the players' lounge was rife with rumors that positive tests were being covered up -- a theory that gained credence with Andre Agassi's recent revelation that he wriggled out of being sanctioned after a positive test for crystal meth.
WADA director general David Howman, who once headed New Zealand's tennis federation, praised the sport for bringing the WTA and ATP under the same testing umbrella a few years ago, and for increasing the number of tests. "They've listened, and they've done some good things,'' Howman said. But he stressed that quality, not quantity, is what is important, and he agreed that EPO should be a bigger priority.
"It's not just being used by endurance athletes anymore,'' he said. "Any athlete in any sport is looking for any substance that will help them.''
A reliable HGH test has been a work in progress for several years, first introduced in 2004 but not widely accepted until much more recently. Last month, a British rugby player became the first athlete convicted on the basis of the test. Tennis does not currently test for HGH. (Nor does Major League Baseball.) Miller said the ITF will be re-evaluating its approach in the wake of the first "non-analytical" -- i.e., not resulting from a test -- HGH case in the sport.
Human growth hormone promotes both strength and efficient recovery, and as such has been firmly in the sights of both cheaters and anti-doping authorities for many years. Circumstantial evidence is just that, and Odesnik has been convicted of possession, not use.
A number of high-profile tennis players have objected to the intrusiveness of increased drug testing in the past couple of years. Here's what they may not understand, or at least may not want to hear. The only way to stop the guessing games about their performances is to step up testing. That will never be perfect, and some fish will always get through the net. But the more tennis catches its own wrongdoers, the less the sport will have to deal with ugly surprises like Friday's news.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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