Tennis’ ruling body has been accused of going soft on doping, after a Mail on Sunday investigation found the International Tennis Federation lets the world’s best players book their own drug tests.
Players were invited to secure time slots for blood-doping tests before this year’s Miami Open, a method anti-doping experts say makes a ‘huge difference’ to cheats seeking to escape detection.
Players were also given notice that blood samples would be taken before the 2019 French Open and last year’s US Open. The former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) compared tennis’s approach with cycling’s much-criticized failure to expose Lance Armstrong’s years of drug-taking.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) has also been accused of inflating the number of drug tests it conducts, after this newspaper found that it had published ‘misleading’ data.
‘I don’t believe that the ITF should announce when they are going to drug test athletes,’ said Luis Horta, the former head of Portugal’s antidoping agency. ‘It’s the same thing as in the past in cycling, when they announced that they would test all athletes on the eve of the Tour de France. It’s not good.’
Nicole Sapstead is the former chief executive of UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) who is now the director of the ITF’s anti-doping programme. the Mail on Sunday has obtained evidence that Sapstead wrote to players informing them that they would be tested in the days prior to this year’s Miami Open, which began in March.
Tennis’ ruling body has been accused of going soft on doping after a Mail on Sunday investigation found the International Tennis Federation lets players book their own drug tests
Nicole Sapstead, director of the ITF’s anti-doping programme, wrote to players informing them they would be tested in the days prior to this year’s Miami Open, which began in March
The ITF also warned players before the 2019 French Open and the 2021 US Open that they would have to submit a blood sample as part of the ITF’s athlete biological passport (ABP) programme.
Before the US and Miami Opens, players were invited to book time slots to undergo these tests through the online ‘Tennis Anti-Doping Portal’.
One message sent by Sapstead before the Miami Open read: ‘Appointments to provide your ABP sample will be between 09:00 and 18:00 on each day (between 19-22nd March 2022) and will be allocated on a first-come, first -served basis’. This gave players as much as four days’ notice of their test.
As part of the ABP, the ITF collects blood samples from players throughout the year to monitor how their blood parameters change over time. Blood doping can be detected by abnormalities in a player’s biomarkers.
The ITF has also been accused of inflating the number of drug tests it conducts, it is believed
Athletes can blood dope by taking Erythropoietin (EPO), which increases red blood cell production, or by undergoing blood transfusions. According to the WADA code, athletes should not be warned about up-coming doping tests. The code states that ‘save in exceptional and justifiable circumstances, all testing shall be No Advance Notice testing’.
WADA did not clarify what would constitute such circumstances when asked by The Mail on Sunday.
Professor Roger Pielke is the founder of the sports governance center at the University of Colorado Boulder, and a consultant on sports ethics to international sports bodies. Asked about players being notified of their tests, Prof Pielke said: ‘It would seem to be a violation of the “spirit”, if not the letter, of the WADA code. It certainly gives an impression of anti-doping theatre.’
The ITF’s anti-doping program has been run by the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA), an independent body, since January this year.
According to the WADA code, athletes should not be warned about up-coming doping tests
The ITIA said it warns players of ABP tests before some competitions because it allows them to carry out more tests. Regularly tested players are part of the ITF’s registered testing pool and have to provide their location for an hour every day of the year when they can be subject to testing.
‘The aim is to gather data from as many players as possible so we have the widest set of data to work from,’ the ITIA said in a statement. ‘Logistically it makes sense therefore to arrange this in advance once or twice a year, so we can test as many players as we can.
‘Because we do this ABP testing on an ongoing basis – both with notice and no-notice – it does not make any difference if players know about it in advance. Adverse levels will show, either with this test or through in-competition or out of competition testing.’
However, Rob Parisotto, an Australian stem-cell scientist who pioneered the first test for EPO and was a member of cycling’s expert ABP panel, says that the tennis authorities are potentially allowing cheats to escape detection by warning them they will have to provide a sample .
‘The ITIA’s statement is a remarkably egregious one,’ Parisotto said. ‘It does make a huge difference if testing is known in advance with regards to blood doping. A three- to four-day window before a tournament would be the ideal period to “top up” your blood volume to maximize oxygen-carrying capacity and therefore improve endurance and recovery capabilities.’
During the US Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into systematic doping by Armstrong, the cyclist’s US Postal team-mates admitted they regularly manipulated their blood parameters using saline infusions when they knew they would be drug tested.
The ITIA said it warns players of ABP tests before some competitions because it allows them to carry out more tests, but experts are concerned that cheats may be avoiding detection
The ITF has also been accused of inflating its testing figures after it emerged that they count every sample taken during an individual doping control as a separate test. If a player submits blood, urine and blood-passport samples at the same time, it is counted as three tests rather than one.
The ITF’s own official documents list these figures under ‘tests per player’, and not ‘samples per player’. The test data which The Mail on Sunday obtained for one Russian player, for example, who has been ranked in the top 20, shows that they were tested three times out of competition 2015. The ITF’s official figures state they underwent at least seven.
In 2021, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic were tested nine, 12 and 13 times out of competition respectively, according to ITF statistics.
Former WADA president Dick Pound described the way the ITF collate their figures as ‘misleading’. He said: ‘I have always been suspicious of the federations that rely on the number of tests administered as opposed to targeting the highest risk players. They seek refuge in the statistics, saying, “Oh, we tested 1,000 players.”‘
Random out-of-competition doping tests increase the chances of catching competitors who choose to dope. In 2021, the ITF warned players that they would be tested for 16 per cent of all ABP tests. The agency says advanced notice of ABP testing presents players ‘with a further challenge around how they deal with the prospect of a test in a few days’.
Former WADA president Dick Pound said the way the ITF collate their figures was ‘misleading’
The ITIA states that for all regular urine and blood testing, samples were collected with no advance notice.
The ITF has never sanctioned a player for abnormalities in their ABP nor for an EPO positive. At most, two in-competition ABP tests were performed at grand slams in 2021, effectively meaning the organization did not use its ABP to gauge whether players were blood doping at the sport’s most important tournaments. It did, however, test directly for EPO.
The ITF’s fight against doping has often been under scrutiny over the past 20 years. In 2016, Federer revealed that he had been tested only once in 10 years during offseason warm weather training in Dubai.
Similarly, in testing data obtained by this newspaper, eight Russian players, who were given special approval to compete at the 2016 Olympics despite their country’s state-run doping programme, were not tested at all in the 2014 and 2015 off-seasons.
The ITF told The Mail on Sunday that in 2021 nine per cent of all doping samples – not tests – were collected during the off-season.
Sapstead took charge of the ITIA having been director of operations at UKAD when it allowed British Cycling to perform its own ‘unofficial’ drug tests after a British Olympic cyclist tested positive for trace amounts of steroids around the time of the 2012 London Olympics.
WADA found UKAD’s actions were ‘inconsistent’ with the WADA rules after The Mail on Sunday unearthed the allegations last year.