Tennis: No dope when it comes to doping

2/3/2006 - Tennis

The emergence of the wide-smiling Marcos Baghdatis and the return of Martina Hingis at the Australian Open proved that tennis remains as unpredictable as any world sport.

But three months from now, when the year's second Grand Slam gets under way, you can count on one certainty: the absence of three high-profile players who have run afoul of tennis' doping policy.

The end of 2005 saw French Open runner-up Mariano Puerta and Bulgarian rising star and Roland Garros quarterfinalist Sesil Karatantcheva suspended for violating the drug policy. Roland Garros has proven ripe for ferreting out the drug cheats as another Argentine, French Open quarterfinalist Guillermo Canas, is already serving a doping suspension which began last summer.

The 27-year-old Puerta became doping's poster boy after his surprising run to the finals last June is now marred by the positive test for the stimulant etilefrine, which he claimed he came into contact with by drinking from the same glass as his wife.

The International Tennis Federation, which oversees the Grand Slams and now the anti-doping program for the men, wasn't buying it and Puerta was dealt a record eight-year ban from the game. The harsh ruling came after Puerta had already served a nine-month ban in 2003 after a testing positive for clenbuterol.

If the ITF wanted to send a message as the newly ordained doping czar for the men, from the players' perspective consider it message received.

Canas was suspended last summer for two years for the prohibitive diuretic hydrochlorothiazide (HCT), while Karatantcheva, 15 years old at the time of the testing, was handed a maximum two-year ban after she twice tested positive for elevated levels of nandrolone -- following her Roland Garros quarterfinal loss last year and again five weeks later in out-of-competition testing in Tokyo. The WTA Tour handles its own drug testing, but the ITF intervened since Karatantcheva tested positive at a Slam.

These cases haven't captured major media attention in America, where the doping controversy in major team sports has reached as far as Capitol Hill.

Congress is in the process of cracking down hard on drug use in sports, so much so that they are currently attempting to push through the Drug Free Sports Act, which would force uniform testing in all U.S. sports.

Last March, executives from several top American sporting leagues testified for their sports' testing procedures during hearings before the House Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee. Receiving the most scrutiny was Major League Baseball, with Congress not very impressed by the league's 10-day suspension for first-time offenders. In November, baseball finally responded and raised the punishment for a first-time offender to 50 games, 100 games for the second offense, and a lifetime ban for a third.

In the NBA, a player can be disqualified for two years for the first positive test for what the league considers "drugs of abuse." (Such was the case last week with New Orleans Hornets forward Chris Andersen.) In the NHL, under terms of the new collective bargaining agreement, a first-time offender receives a 20-game suspension. A repeat offender gets slapped with a 60-game suspension, with a permanent ban for a third offense. Banned players must wait two years before applying for reinstatement.

For players in the NFL, the biggest sports business in America, a first-offense violation for steroids is punishable by a four-game suspension without pay. A second offense leads to six games without pay, and a third violation sidelines a player for one year.

"Some people might think that this is a fairly weak policy," commented Rep. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on the NFL's program.

And when compared to tennis, he's right.

Under the current rules of the anti-doping program in tennis, a violation for a banned substance is as tough as they come in sports. First offense is a two-year ban. Second offense is a maximum lifetime ban.

For specific "lesser" substances, the first offense is up to one year. Second is two years, while a third offense results in a lifetime ban. In each case, the player may have to forfeit all ranking points and prize money earned at the event and possibly at more events that were subsequently played. In the case of Puerta, that amounts to $782,000 from the French Open plus another $330,000, for a total exceeding $1.1 million.

"We can say for sure our sport is the leading, if not the top, sport in drug testing in both its intensity and as far as what they test for," Andre Agassi said two years ago at the Australian Open. "It's a very extensive list, probably more extensive than any other sport, and how often they test. It's not possible to get more aggressive maintaining the integrity of our sport."

Drug testing in tennis didn't begin until the 1980s with recreational drugs as the main target. After the ATP Tour was founded in 1990, performance-enhancing drugs were banned according to the International Olympic Committee's list. In 1993 the ATP, WTA and the ITF created a joint comprehensive anti-doping program.

In the latest move to centralize and increase efficiency, the ITF at the start of this year became the new administrator of the men's program which continues to adhere to the penalties of the WADA code and the world-recognized IOC list.

"I think tennis has really got itself pulled together now, with the ITF taking full charge of testing," says Peter Bodo, senior editor for Tennis Magazine. "I don't think the penalties are too strict; doping is a serious offense."

Currently, tour players get randomly tested during the year, some upwards of 20 times at any tour-sanctioned event and out of competition at home or even while on vacation. The powers that be in professional tennis have instilled in the minds of the players that if you participate in the sport, you will get tested. And if you test positive, the punishment will be severe.

But for players who do test positive, like Puerta, there is a fair and due process.

A Swedish company, International Drug Testing Management (IDTM), administers each of the 1,200 or so tests on pro tennis players during the year. Each test result, which consists of two urine samples -- "A" and "B" -- and/or a blood sample, is sent to a WADA-approved lab. If the lab finds a positive sample "A," the sample report is forwarded in without the player's name to an Anti-Doping Review Board for further evaluation and to the ATP, WTA and ITF.

If the review board finds that the procedures taken during testing were properly followed, the board will then ask the lab to notify the player of the positive result while also disclosing to the proper organization the name of the player and further details of the test.

In the presence of the player or a player representative, sample "B" is then tested, and if it comes up positive with no inconsistencies, the player and the organizational bodies are again notified, only this time they are alerted that there has been a violation of the doping policy.

The organizing body will then ask the player for a statement regarding the findings and if the player would like a hearing to review the results. A hearing usually occurs within 60 days of the request (but can occur at a much later date dependent upon the availability of all the parties involved), after which a decision is made. If it's ruled against the player, the tribunal will notify the player and the public of the violation and the penalty.

The player has 21 days to appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which has the final and enforceable say.

Both Puerta and Karatancheva are currently in the process of appealing to the CAS. While the timetable may be lengthy from test to final decision, tennis officials maintain it's fair to all involved.

As the governing bodies have shown, it's easier to keep your players out of the headlines when you conduct your own drug testing. Now that the ATP has outsourced its testing, players are well aware of the stringent policies and harsh consequences associated with banned substances in men's tennis.

Look for women's tennis to soon follow, and if Capitol Hill and the U.S. government have their way, athletes in major sporting leagues will soon be paying a lot more attention to what goes into their bodies.

Miki Singh provided research during the Australian Open for ESPN.