London: Andy Murray has entered the worldwide debate stimulated by the Lance Armstrong scandal, with a call for the tennis authorities to undertake more out-of-competition testing. It is the only way, he suggested, to make sure the sport is clean.
Murray is right to question the thoroughness of tennis’s anti-doping programme. Urine samples may be taken with some regularity during tournaments, but as the mass of evidence from the US Postal cycling team demonstrates, the best way to catch drug cheats is to take them by surprise.
“You never know in any sport what’s really going on,” Murray said, as he prepared for his second-round match at the Paris Masters. “I think the out of competition stuff could probably get better. When we’re in December and stuff, when people are training and setting their bases, I think it would be good to try and do more around that time.
“On Saturday night, we actually had a blood test. They came to the hotel late that night — it was completely random. I think that’s good; we’re not used to doing that many blood tests in tennis (and) it’s something that’s obviously necessary. It’s a shame for their sport (cycling) but how they managed to get away with it is incredible, for that long.”
How urgent is tennis’ desire to front up to this challenge? There are some worrying statistics, including the paltry £1.5million annual budget that the International Tennis Federation spends on its anti-doping programme, according to a 2010 interview with the head of its science and technical department.
The data published on the ITF’s website reveals that, in 2011, there were only 21 out-of-competition blood tests across the whole of the professional game. Yet this is a sport where the rewards for reaching the top run into tens of millions of pounds. The motivation is there to take any advantage available.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Murray addressed both sides of the issue. He drew a contrast between cycling — where it’s all about “how many watts you’re producing” — and the extraordinary physical skills required by high-level tennis. There’s no drug that can teach you how to play a drop volley.
But he also pointed out that doping penalties have not always been fully enforced, citing the case of Wayne Odesnik, who was caught with eight vials of human growth hormone in his luggage in 2010. Originally handed a two-year ban, Odesnik’s sentence was later reduced.
“That’s what was frustrating for me,” Murray said, “because we’re going through all of this and they’re being too lenient with guys that are travelling with human growth hormone to other countries. It’s ridiculous.
If somebody fails a test, don’t just let them back into the sport 18 months earlier than what they should be. “The other thing with tennis is that there’s a lot of testing at the top end,” Murray added. “But lower down there isn’t anywhere near as much. With the ‘Whereabouts’ form, I think only the top 50 singles players and maybe only the top ten doubles players have to do it.”
There is a theory that, if the ITF really wanted to make a statement, it could pick up dozens of positive tests at Challenger level. This is where the desperation is greatest, with hundreds of would-be stars struggling just to pay their travel costs.