Drugs testing in tennis has fallen by alarming levels during the Covid-19 pandemic, Telegraph Sport can reveal.
As the sport prepares for the start of the French Open on Sunday, an investigation by Telegraph Sport has found that some of the world's leading players were barely tested in the five months between the suspension of the tours in early March and the Western & Southern Open in August.
The International Tennis Federation — the world governing body which conducts the vast majority of tests in the sport — has also admitted that the combined totals of tests from the second and third quarter of 2020 are unlikely to match the 1,935 samples collected in the first quarter.
The revelations will fuel concerns that players could have exploited the lack of testing by using illegal substances during the pandemic, either to build up training volumes or help recovery from injury.
Telegraph Sport spoke to a wide range of players at this week's ATP event in Hamburg to gauge how frequently they had been tested during lockdown.
Kei Nishikori, the former world No 5, and rising stars Felix Auger Aliassime and Dominic Koepfer reported that they had performed only one test in that largely tournament-free period between early March and mid-August. Serena Williams has also only been tested once by the US Anti-Doping Agency in 2020.
For purposes of comparison, Nishikori – who bases himself at the IMG Academy in Florida – underwent 29 tests last year from the ITF alone, of which 17 were 'out of competition' (this category, rather misleadingly, includes tests conducted at tournament venues up to 11.59pm on the night before the first ball is struck).
Another notable contrast can be spotted in the testing record of German No 2 Jan-Lennard Struff. He was tested 31 times by the ITF last year, but was only asked to complete three tests between March and the beginning of the Hamburg event – a period of more than six months.
“There were no tests between March and end of May,” Struff said. “Nada [Germany’s anti-doping agency] kept us players updated on that. We had to continue the ‘whereabouts’ system. Then after the break they suggested a self-test and gave us a manual on how to do it at home. But it was not mandatory. After May, I was tested two times in Germany in the morning at home in a short period of time. I was also tested by the ITF in the bubble before the US Open.”
One player – Tommy Paul of the USA – also revealed that he had not received has a single visit at home from dope-testers since the start the Covid-19 lockdown, and said that the same was true of his housemate Reilly Opelka. There is no suggestion that any of these players has committed any wrongdoing.
Now that tour-level events are resuming, the International Tennis Federation testing programme is beginning to pick up volume again. Stuart Miller, the ITF’s director of integrity, insisted that the governing body "did try to maintain a presence throughout the lockdown” but acknowledged it had not been able to sustain the testing levels from the first three months of the year during the height of the pandemic.
Miller also indicated that the number of blood tests – a more sophisticated anti-doping tool than urine testing – had fallen as a percentage of the next batch of figures, which are expected to be released at the end of the month. “It is more invasive, and that is something we had to be very careful about," he said. "It’s easier to maintain the appropriate social distancing when collecting urine than blood.”
Six-time Grand Slam winner Boris Becker urged the tennis authorities to restore testing to pre-pandemic levels in order to ensure the sport retained its credibility in the eyes of the public.
"The world is special at the moment but tennis should be a role model in testing and it is important to have many tests again in every country," he said. "We now have to test more again."
In normal circumstances, the ITF would expect to perform around 85 per cent of tests on tennis players, with NADOs (national anti-doping organisations) doing the rest. But that outside support collapsed completely between March and June, and has been slow to resume ever since.
In Spain, for instance, the director of the AEPSAD – the national anti-doping agency – announced at the end of March that the national test program would come to a complete halt during lockdown. AEPSAD told Telegraph Sport that its programme had resumed in June, with 550 tests carried out since then across all sports. Again, though, blood testing has been affected by the national rule stating that only doctors can collect blood samples.
The slowdown in testing predates lockdown, and affects all sports. In Great Britain, for instance, the only figures available for 2020 cover the first quarter of the year, and show that UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) collected just 126 tests in those three months, of which none were in tennis. In 2019, the first quarter showed a little over 2,000 tests, of which five were in tennis.
Speaking to Telegraph Sport, world No 5 Daniil Medvedev said that he had experienced a similar situation in France, where he trains at a tennis academy in Cannes.
“I was in France during the lockdown and the doping control officers couldn't come during that time,” said Medvedev. “It was communicated that way.”
After the lockdown, Medvedev added, he has been tested once in France. Before and during the US Open in New York, he was tested twice by the ITF.
NADO tests are particularly valuable because they are taken out of competition, and thus have an element of surprise not present in those collected at an event. Typically, in-competition tests are carried out via a urine sample when a player loses – or, in the best-case scenario, after they lift the title.
Even before the pandemic had stacked the odds even further in this hi-tech game of cops-and-robbers, tennis was already lagging behind many other sports in its defences. In 2018, for instance, a total of 6,643 tennis tests were carried out worldwide — a long way behind swimming (32,309) and cycling (25,391).