"Rec" Drugs not Widespread in Tennis, but Should They Be Banned?

Does tennis have a recreational drug problem? I ask this question, of course, on the heels of former top-10 player Richard Gasquet’s positive test for cocaine yesterday and, not far behind, Martina Hingis’ higher profile coke bust in late 2007, which sent the five-time major champ from Switzerland into retirement.


Tennis is no stranger to drug culture. Some big stars of the 1970s such as John McEnroe and Vitas Gerulaitis admitted using cocaine when they were playing (and when testing was far less stringent than it is today). Another, Bjorn Borg, was rumored to have been mixed up with drugs after leaving the sport. His fellow Swede, seven-time major winner Mats Wilander, suffered a three-month ban after testing positive for cocaine at Roland Garros in 1995.




Considering what we know about the potent mix of youth, money, travel, and fan worship, this should come as no surprise. It’s almost inevitable that ATP and WTA players that crisscross the globe and deal weekly with the highs and lows of world-class competition would be tempted to take a hit of something on occasion. Some are bound to get caught, especially now that tennis falls under the strict WADA anti-doping program.


“One thing go keep in mind is that tennis players are among the most tested athletes on the planet,” former No. 1 and occasional commentator Jim Courier told me by phone today. “If you tested the general population, you’d find issues out there too. Athletes are not immune, just like the general public.” Agreed. In fact, despite relying on their bodies so much, one could argue that athletes are more susceptible than your average Joe and Jane for the reasons I cited above.


In that vein, I decided to check on the number of doping violations for cocaine and cannabis, the two drugs besides alcohol most commonly considered “recreational.” According to the International Tennis Federation, since 2004 there have been 10 bans related to these substances for men and women, not including wheelchair players (yes, they can’t just say no all the time, either). Frenchman Gasquet, who was suspended Monday and will take his case to an ITF anti-doping tribunal in a couple of months, would be the 11th.


In 2006, the ITF conducted 1,900 in and out of competition tests. Extrapolating from that figure (that is, an average of 1,900 tests per year), the number of recreational violations since 2004 is miniscule – 0.001 percent. For a couple of other reasons, I doubt tennis has a widespread doping problem. One, as mentioned, is that tennis falls under one of the strictest programs in existence with constant in and out of competition testing, even in the offseason. Two, the sport is nearly year round, which would seem to disincline players to cycle on and off steroids or experiment with party drugs. The risk of getting busted is high.


However, there is a bigger issue here. Should substances like pot and coke even be on the banned list? I don’t think so. If anything, they are performance detracting. And while certainly it does not do well for any sport’s athletes to be dabbling in illegal drugs (notwithstanding that marijuana is legal in some countries and illegal in others), players dabble in these two substances to their own possible detriment. What’s more, how come alcohol gets a free pass? Downing some beers before a match is probably little more performance enhancing than taking a bong hit or snorting white powder. Consuming a lot of alcohol in or out of competition probably has the same deleterious effect on one’s mind, body and ability to perform as the other aforementioned drugs. Um, John Daly anyone? I say if players want to booze it up or smoke joints or inhale lines, let them do so – they are adults and they do so at their own peril. Let the cops worry about them, not tennis authorities.


Courier, for one, was unwilling to divulge whether in his opinion pot and coke fall into the category of legitimate performance boosters. “I think tennis needs to provide a unified front against any kind of performance enhancers, which I don’t have the expertise to define. Do I sound like a lawyer?” he laughed. The four-time major winner and senior circuit owner lauded tennis for “doing its best to present a clean face to the world. Tennis is disappointed when it catches some one, but it’s positive that it’s being strict and adamant about the sport.”


Herewith is a list of the cocaine and cannabis doping violations since 1995 (per the ITF):


ITF

1995 Roland Garros Karel Novacek (CZE) Cocaine Class II - 3 month ban and forfeiture

1995 Roland Garros Mats Wilander (SWE) Cocaine Class II - 3 month ban and forfeiture

1999 Australian Open - Larisa Neiland (RUS) Caffeine Class III warning (no ban)

2003 US Open Wheelchair Tennis, San Diego Miles Thompson (USA) Cocaine Class II - 3 month ban and forfeiture

2005 Swiss Satellite, Montreux Holger Fischer (GER) Cannabis - “Specified substance” 3 month ban and forfeiture

2004 Sydney ITF Wheelchair tournament Travis Moffat (NZL) Cannabis 6 month ban and forfeiture

2004 Nottingham ITF Wheelchair tournament Jamie Burdekin (GBR) Cocaine 2 year ban and forfeiture

2005 US Open Wheelchair Tennis, San Diego David Buck (USA) Cannabis - “Specified substance” 3 month ban and forfeiture

2005 Swiss Satellite, Montreux Holger Fischer (GER) Cannabis - “Specified substance” 3 month ban and forfeiture

2005 Vancouver Challenger Ryan Newport (USA) - Cannabis “Specified substance” 2 month ban and forfeiture

2007 Gerry Weber Open, Germany Franz Stauder (GER) Cannabis “Specified substance” 2 month ban and forfeiture

2007 Wimbledon, London Martina Hingis (SUI) - Cocaine 2 year ban and forfeiture

2007 Metz (qualifying) Maximilian Abel (GER) Cocaine 2 year ban and forfeiture

2007 Puebla Challenger Marcel Felder (URU) Cannabis 2 month ban and forfeiture


ATP

2002 Basle Martin Rodriguez (ARG) Caffeine Class III warning (no ban)

2004 Vina Del Mar Diego Hipperdinger (ESP) Cocaine - 2 year ban and forfeiture

2004 Vina Del Mar (qualifying) Nicolas Coutelot (FRA) Cannabis / Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) “Specified substance” - 2 month ban and forfeiture

2004 Bucharest Simon Larose (CAN) - Cocaine 2 year ban and forfeiture

2004 Phoenix, Mauritius Challenger Melle Van Gemerden (NED) Cannabis 2 month ban and forfeiture


WTA

2002 Acapulco Lourdes Dominguez-Lino (ESP) Cocaine Class II - 3 month ban and forfeiture


NB: Maximum ban for Class I abuse increased to 2 years in 2000.

 

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