56. The ITF’s anti-doping programme: glass half full

This post was first published by Ubitennis on 9 March 2016 at the following link.

Yesterday, Maria Sharapova stunned the tennis world by announcing that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open, testing positive for a drug called Meldonium. Meldonium is a substance that was added to the banned list maintained by WADA (the World Anti-Doping Authority) on 1 January this year. Sharapova faces a lengthy ban from tennis of up to 4 years and has been provisionally suspended from competition from 12 March.

But rather than focus on Sharapova, I want to talk about the ITF’s anti-doping programme as a whole. Specifically, that tennis’s anti-doping programme, although far from perfect, is actually making good strides. In the last few years, the ITF has increased out-of-competition blood testing, introduced the biological passport – both widely regarded as indispensable elements in combating the use of drugs in professional sport – and has been willing to confront high-profile testing and procedural failures, think of Marin Cilic and Viktor Troicki. In essence, the programme is doing what it was set up to do.

Gaps remain of course: out-of-competition testing falls off a cliff outside of the ATP and WTA top 60, which does not inspire confidence. Players are not being tested enough, especially in comparison with other sports. But tennis’s anti-doping programme is no longer the “feeble” programme of a few years ago. This would be to miss the overall gains, not least the transparency of the ITF, which publishes statistics on the number of tests by player each year.

Data from the ITF’s 2015 anti-doping programme

In 2015, the ITF tested more than 1,000 professionals for the first time ever in one year (1,003), a 7% increase against the 931 players tested in 2014 (and compared to just 666 in 2010). Across both ATP and WTA tours (and including among wheelchair players) and among ITF events, the ITF administered a total of 4,433 tests, which includes in-competition testing at tournaments, out-of-competition testing and accounts for blood and urine tests.

Players may also be tested by their national anti-doping authority (e.g. USADA for the likes of John Isner or Serena Williams): these numbers are not included in the ITF’s statistics.

4,433 ITF tests in 2015 is an increase of 20% on the 3,529 tests undertaken in 2014 and continues the noticeable increase over the last 8 years. This increase has come overwhelming from an increase in out-of-competition blood tests. Out-of-competition testing (both urine and blood) accounted for just 1 in 7 tests in 2012; this year every other test was an out-of-competition test.

ITF Anti-doping Programme 2008-2015; in-competition and out-of-competition tests (raw data source: ITF; author analysis for ubitennis.net)



Key though to the overall programme is its transparency: the ITF publishes the names of players, and the number and type of tests administered (in-competition, out-of-competition but not blood/urine).

Accordingly, I have analysed the number of out-of-competition tests for ATP and WTA players ranked in the top 100 over the last 3 years [see footnote 1]. What this shows – see chart below – is that more players are being tested out-of-competition than ever before [see footnote 2]. Whereas in 2013 on both tours it was really only the top 40 who were being tested at least 7 times outside of competition, in 2014, this largely expanded to the top 50 and in 2015 to the top 60.

Unfortunately, this is where out-of-competition testing largely finishes and the ITF’s short-term objective should be to carry out broaden the scope of out-of-competition testing to the remaining members of the top 100. After all, it is perfectly possible for a player to win an ATP or WTA tournament while ranked outside of the top 60. (Victor Estrella Burgos won the ATP 250 tournament in Quito in 2015 ranked 73.) And here of course lies the reputational risk for either ATP or WTA tour should a champion – Sharapova, Troicki, Cilic – be found in violation of anti-doping rules. Better to conduct more testing than to leave this risk unchecked.

Out-of-competition testing 2013-2015 – ATP / WTA Top 100 (raw data source: ITF; author analysis for ubitennis.net)


Comparing across sports

If the scope of out-of-competition testing leaves plenty of room for improvement, so does the amount of testing. Here is where comparison with other sports – I have taken road cycling – is instructive. In 2012, the leading 513 professional road cyclists on the UCI World Tour were tested on average 11.7 times during the season, according to this UCI report, pages 13-16.

According to the ITF’s data the 500 tennis players (male and female) who were tested the most in 2015 were tested on average half that amount (5.8 times, see footnote 3), and 206 of those players – about 40% – were only tested between 1 and 3 times, mostly in-competition. This shows you how far tennis has to go.

Coming so soon after the match-fixing allegations around tennis, Sharapova’s admission of failing a drug test has been seen in some quarters that tennis is facing another existential issue. However, this does not appear to be the case, at least when analysing the ITF’s published statistics. Sharapova’s admission shows that the ITF’s anti-doping programme is working, although no question the game’s administrators should increase the scope of out-of-competition testing and increase the average amount of testing of each player.





[1] For tests in 2015, the ranking I have used is the ranking of each player from 31 December of the previous year, i.e. 2014. Similarly for tests in 2013, I used the ranking from 31 December 2012. For example , the WTA world number 43 as at 31 December 2013, Andrea Petkovic, was tested 7 or more times out-of-competition in 2014.)

[2] Note the ITF does not provide the precise number of tests only bandings (7+ tests, 4-6 tests, 1-3 tests, 0 tests).

[3] There is an assumption here. The ITF-published data showing the number of tests per player groups the number of tests in three groups: 1-3 tests; 4-6 tests, 7+ tests. For the purposes of the above calculation, I made the assumption that a player with 1-3 tests was tested twice, a player with 4-6 tests was tested 5 times, and a player with 7+ tests was tested 7 times.


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