Tennis Has a Doping Problem

Rafael Nadal
A skit on a French satirical TV show last year depicted Nadal peeing in a car’s gas tank and using a steroid needle as a pen. Former tennis great Yannick Noah wrote an op-ed in November alleging that all Spanish athletes were doping. Retired Belgian player Christophe Rochus questioned Nadal’s ability to dominate the 2012 French Open and still fall to injury two weeks later at Wimbledon.

Is this a witch hunt? In some ways, yes. Conspiracy theorists see red flags everywhere: big biceps, phantom injuries, hair loss, skipping the Olympics, Spain’s rich doping history, and unprecedented stamina. Does acknowledging the speculation sully Nadal’s legacy? No. He’s still one of the best ever—he just happens to be caught in an era of performance-enhancing drugs.

Nadal, who did not respond to requests for comment, has denied any use of banned substances.

But tennis needs to clean up its act if there is any hope to ending the chatter about Nadal and other top players. 

When the anti-doping watchdog is weak, as many say tennis’s is, never having failed a drug test just isn’t convincing enough. Lance Armstrong never tested positive, but he ran one of the most sophisticated drug rings in professional sports. Baseball’s ’90s renaissance was fueled not only by home runs, but steroids, too. In both of those sports, tons and tons and tons of drugs were gobbled up and injected, catapulting dopers to the top.

Murray tweeted that the ruling is ‘beyond a joke … biggest cover up in sports history?’

And at a moment when men’s tennis has seen four players dominate the sport, waging unprecedented five-hour, five-set matches, an analysis of the anti-doping efforts at the International Tennis Federation (or ITF, the governing body for the sport) is revealing: The flimsy oversight program and its lack of transparency appear largely to blame for fueling the doping suspicions.  

After Armstrong’s admission, Swiss player Roger Federer, currently the world No. 3, said it would be “naïve” to think the sport is clean. Top-ranked Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, the winner of this year’s Wimbledon tournament, have advocated for more blood testing. Nadal, clearly annoyed with the speculation, wants more transparency. “Not everyone has to pay for some sinners,” he said.
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