Is tennis catching doping cheats or ruining careers?

Image source, Getty Images

Comment on the photo, Simona Halep returned to the WTA Tour last March, following one of the highest doping bans in modern tennis history.

  • author, Jonathan Jurico
  • Role, BBC Sport journalist

A system designed to detect cheating in tennis has come under intense scrutiny following the ban of former Wimbledon champion Simona Halep for doping.

British doubles player Tara Moore’s loss of two years of her career also raised questions. She recently returned after citing tainted meat as the source of her failed test.

Those at the heart of the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA) – the independent body set up by the sport’s governing bodies to fulfill the mission of providing ‘tennis you can trust’ – insist it still serves its purpose.

An ITF source told BBC Sport: “No one wants to trap tennis players or ruin their careers for no reason. But we are following independent evidence and experience to reach a conclusion.”

Others who have seen their careers derailed by what some consider complex and unfair processes are not convinced.

Kamil Majchrzak, the former world number 75, who was banned for 13 months after failing a doping test in 2022, said: “For them, this is a procedure. It has one function, which is to give us the largest possible penalty according to this accusation.”

“But it’s our lives that are on the edge, not theirs.”

Do players suffer disproportionate damage?

Halep, a two-time major champion, regularly criticized ITIA’s procedures while her case was ongoing, describing them as an “ordeal”.

Her former coach Darren Cahill accused ITIA of making “false accusations and false narratives”, and demanded a “full review” of how it operates.

FIA chief executive Karen Moorhouse acknowledged that the case of Halep, a former world number one, “raised some fair and important questions”. But the agency rejects Cahill’s invitation and says it is doing everything by the book.

The ITIA applies the rules set by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and can be investigated if it is deemed not to be applying them correctly.

Like Halep, Majchrzak failed the 2022 test and has maintained his innocence. He says the case caused great “shock”.

The 28-year-old has played regularly in the Grand Slams, represented Poland at the 2020 Olympics and reached the highest ranking of his career when he was told a urine test showed traces of an anabolic steroid.

A contaminated herbal nutritional drink, Majkrzak said. ITIA’s testing of several unopened bags of supplements confirmed that they showed negative results in its test.

Having already been suspended for seven months, he decided not to continue challenging the 13-month ban. He was able to start playing again in January.

He told BBC Sport: “I put a lot of effort into working with my psychiatrist, coaches, wife and family to get through the worst period when I wasn’t really having my best life.”

“My life was meaningless and purposeless. My whole life revolved around tennis. Suddenly I didn’t know whether I would ever play again or not. It was devastating.”

Comment on the photo, After winning 30 of the first 35 matches of his comeback, Kamil Majchrzak is closing in on the world’s top 350 and targeting a return to the Grand Slam this year.

Moore, 31, was banned in May 2022 after boldenone and nandrolone – steroids on WADA’s banned list – were found in her system.

In December 2023, an independent commission ruled that the meat she ate while playing for Colombia was the source of the two substances.

After the ruling, Moore described “19 months of emotional turmoil” as she watched her “reputation, rating and livelihood slowly disappear.”

However, the case is not over yet. ITIA is appealing the ruling that both substances found in its system were the result of contaminated meat.

Moore She resumed her career At a low-key event in Sardinia this week, a month after launching a fundraising page to help her make a comeback.

Majchrzak estimates he has spent “100,000 or 150,000 euros” defending his case, and is still dipping into his savings as he travels the world trying to rebuild his career.

The player is not seeded upon his return, and relies on wildcards from sympathetic tournament directors to get into the action.

Majkrzak feels “blessed” to have been invited to play at the bottom of the ladder in Tunisia and Egypt.

The small number of ranking points gained was an invaluable starting point.

She encouraged him to travel to Rwanda to play in two events on the ATP Challenger Tour – the tier below the main ATP Tour – and he took advantage of a small entry list to play. He ended up winning one of the titles.

This month he traveled to more Challenger events in China and Taiwan, with no guarantee of participation in tournaments but with the hope of qualifying.

“I’m still struggling financially — I still have to live, I still have to eat, I still have to work,” Majchrzak said.

“When playing futures, I have to travel there and still lose money. I have continued to lose money for the past 16 months.”

Is there any flexibility in the rules?

In 2023, ITIA conducted 7,247 in-competition and out-of-competition doping tests. Of these tests, 13 failed and resulted in his temporary suspension.

Halep and Majchrzak were among three players on the top 100 list who were sanctioned, and American Jenson Brooksby was also suspended after missing three drug tests in one year.

“We believe that the vast majority of tennis players are clean and intend to adhere to the rules of the Tennis Anti-Doping Program (TADP),” ITIA says.

“It is also fair to say that some athletes will choose to cheat and others may break the rules negligently or unintentionally.”

Halep has insisted without hesitation that she is clean after being charged with two separate doping charges.

Initially, she was suspended for four years by an independent committee, and her punishment was: It was reduced to nine months By the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).

Cass partially upheld the original decision but ruled that she had not intentionally taken Roxadostat “on the balance of probabilities.”

The ITIA agreed that Majchrzak did not intentionally take banned substances. But it emerged that he was “strictly liable” and should have known there was a “significant risk” in relation to the supplements.

While trying to avoid being seen by players as “the police”, ITIA says there is no “flexibility for negligence” under the World Anti-Doping Code.

“Any anti-doping violation – whether intentional or not – may have multiple consequences,” she added.

Majchrzak’s coach Marcel du Coudray Recently claimed ITIA shows little compassion and ‘bullies’ athletes into accepting sanctions.

ITIA has strongly denied these accusations.

Majchrzak didn’t use the same language as Du Coudray, but he feels some players have no choice – financially and psychologically – but to back down.

“The lawyers said I had a very strong case and a great chance of winning if we went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. But they warned that the process could take several more months.

“They thought the offer wasn’t very fair, but they said it was the best I could get in the circumstances.”

Why do cases take so long?

Halep (32 years old) missed 17 months, which could be the end of her career. This was how long she had served when her initial four-year ban was reduced on appeal – to a shorter suspension than the time she had already served.

Moore finally returned on April 30 — nearly two years after she was temporarily banned.

Investigations into failed drug tests are often complex, especially when a player denies knowingly taking a substance.

The player will provide evidence to refute or mitigate the failed test, leading to further investigation and testing by ITIA.

In the Halep case, the independent court received around 8,000 pages of evidence from the player’s lawyers and the ITIA.

“Taking the case to a hearing, and subsequent decision, is the end of a time-consuming and resource-intensive process, which we recognize is stressful for individuals,” ITIA said.

“Our preference remains to prevent problems at their source, which is why we continue to prioritize prevention and education.”

Majkrzak understands the complexities but says the issues must be resolved faster.

“I had one version of events from the beginning, with evidence and details laid out. I sent everything that was asked of me very quickly and we didn’t have a lot of emails back and forth.

“It took seven months before I got a 13-month offer.

“Our tennis career does not last long and we waste time in the formal process.”

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