Tennis Lessons from the Armstrong Affair

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By Ellen Holland

In the wake of Lance Armstrong’s admission that performance-enhancing drugs propelled his seven Tour de France wins, Novak Djokovic joined many other players voicing their opinions on drug use in tennis by stating that the “inhuman” physical demands put upon cyclists forced Armstrong and many other cycling champions into doping.

“I think it's not acceptable that they have physically so much races in short period of the time,” Djokovic said.  “I think basically every single day, day and a half, they have to go through 200 miles.  Uphill, downhill in Giro D'Italia, Tour de France, that's inhuman effort  As you can see, Lance Armstrong, many other big champions, had to use something to succeed.”

In further reaction to Armstrong’s admission, Belgium's former player Christophe Rochus repeated his previous controversial claims that there is drug use in tennis. He said he believes there is no way to stop doping in tennis due to the physical demands of the sport.

“If after a five-set match that lasted five hours in the semifinals the player declares that he cannot play in the final because he cannot get up, the show is over,” he said. “It will never end. There is too much money, too many shows.”

But many rejected Rochus’ claims, including Andy Murray.

“I would say that (Rochus’ claim) is far from the truth,” Murray told the Daily Mirror. “Anyone can see that the amount of hours of training and practice that go into what we do and there are other sports that are endurance-wise far more challenging than tennis. The guys can’t play five or six hours and then come back the next day and run around like a rabbit. When guys play five or six hours in the Slams like we often do, we have a day’s rest. I was told that after our match last year here, Novak didn’t practice on his day off, didn’t hit a ball, didn’t get out of bed till 3 o’clock.”

Two prominent players in recent memory, 1998 Australian Open winner Petr Korda and 2005 French Open finalist Mariano Puerta, have been suspended for their use of banned substances. Other Argentine players, including Guillermo Canas, Guillermo Coria and Juan Ignacio Chela,  also served bans in the past decade. In March 2010, American Wayne  Odesnik pleaded guilty to importing human growth hormone into Australia and was banned for two years by the ITF. The ban was later reduced to one year on account of his “substantial assistance” with the Federation's anti-doping program. Many other tennis players, including Andre Agassi, Martina Hingis and Richard Gasquet, have been involved in controversies relating to the use of recreational drugs.

In addition to administering urine and blood tests during competitions, the ITF has had an Out-of-Competition Whereabouts Programme in place for several years which  applies to all players competing at the Grand Slam tournaments and events sanctioned by the ITF, ATP and WTA. This program requires players to tell the organization give a day-by-day account of their whereabouts to ensure the success of out-of-competition drug testing.

“In last few years there maybe has been one or two cases [of banned substances], but those players were more or less outside of the [Top] 100,” Djokovic said.  “We are keeping this sport clean.”

While repeatedly stating that he has “nothing against” anti-doping tests, even to the tune of 10, 20 and 30 times per year, Djokovic admitted the constant documentation of players whereabouts is a “questionable” policy, but went on to say, on the other hand, that the more blood and urine tests, the better.

“Then you're aware that it's a clean sport and everybody has the same treatment,” he said, while also admitting he had not been blood tested for six or seven months.

Djokovic went on to blast Armstrong for lying.

“He cheated the sport,” he said. “He cheated many people around the world with his career, with his life story.  I think they should take all his titles away because it's not fair towards any sportsman, any athlete.  It's just not the way to be successful.  So I think he should suffer for his lies all these years.”

When asked if she had seen Oprah’s interview with Armstrong Serena Williams said she was “glued to the TV.”

“It's sad for all athletes,” she said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people now look and are like, Okay, if somebody that great, what about everyone else in every other sport?”

Maria Sharapova expressed similar emotions when asked about Armstrong.

“I think it's just a really sad story, sad for that sport itself,” she said. “I'm happy that our sport is as clean as it can be and that we're constantly tested.  You know, we give whereabouts of where we are every single day of the year.”

During an interview at the Australian Open, Murray said he, like others, is blood tested six to seven times a year, in and out of competition.

“I think it's something that all sports are now trying to improve their doping controls and make it better, you know, make sure that every sport's as clean as possible,” he said. “If that's more blood testing or the biological passports, you know, that's something we need to do and improve in tennis, as well.”

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