Right before the start of the 2020 Australian Open, the tennis world was shaken by two cases of temporary disqualification for doping. The first starred the Chilean Nicolas Jarry, who was suspended from playing after a urine check that contained metabolic traces of ligandrol and stanozolol, two prohibited anabolic substances.
The second player who was suspended in a similar fashion was Colombian Robert Farah, who is a Grand Slam champion in men’s doubles with fellow Colombian Juan Sebastian Cabal. Farah and Cabal are also the no. 1 men’s doubles team in the world.
Farah is guilty of having ingested "Boldenona", a supplement sold in Colombia as a veterinary prescription, widely used in beef breeding. Both players released statements reiterating they were innocent and promised to demonstrate their estrangement from such uses at the appropriate venues.
Precisely for this reason, we cannot yet speak of a full suspension but one of a temporary nature; players have the right to defend themselves. But what do we mean when we talk about doping? The most appropriate definition is the following: doping is the administration to an athlete, or the voluntary assumption by the latter, of substances prohibited by the regulations (anabolic), in order to artificially and treacherously increase physical performance in the course of a competition.
Let's now try to clarify and contextualize how anti-doping controls are carried out and what regulations players must comply with. The checks carried out on tennis players are carried out on urine samples only, although blood samples would also be needed to detect a broad spectrum of substances.
When it comes to regulations, however, they refer to a unified program of clear rules that the International Tennis Federation (ITF) has given in collaboration with the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and Women’s Tennis Association (WTA); it is called Tennis Anti-Doping Program (TADP) and is absolutely compatible with the dictates of the World Anti-Doping Code drawn up by WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency.
Players must also comply with the regulations drawn up by their respective federations and national regulations, and are obliged to declare where they can be found for at least an hour a day. However, you can move within certain limits and you have the right to make explicit requests for the use of particular drugs.
The so-called Treatment for Therapeutic Use (TUE) of a medicine grants temporary permission to the tennis player, who can take a prohibited substance for the treatment of particular injuries or pathologies. We know how in the past there have been illustrious protagonists who have had stumbled afoul of these doping regulations.
One of the most recent cases involved Maria Sharapova, who was suspended for 15 months for using "Meldonium" The drug was allowed until a few months before the test carried out on the Russian player (it was permissible until the end of 2015) but Sharapova did not read the change in the rules and continued to use the product, leading to her positive urine test.
A study published by the Drug Testing and Analysis Journal demonstrates how Meldonium significantly improves an athlete's fatigue resistance, recovery capacity, increases protection from stress and facilitates activation of the central nervous system.
For this reason, returning to the cases of Jarry and Farah, they seem to be veiled with substantial differences. There are substances whose uses irrefutably improve some internal parameters of the human body and consequently also improve performance (see Jarry case and anabolic substances) while there are particular cases of potential contamination (the most frequent through food) which can suggest a possible damage that is not directly connected to voluntary consumption (see Farah case).
Just as there are substantial differences between the substances, there are also significant differences between those that are classified as doping practices. Doping, for the competent and controlling bodies, does not consist only of the category of substances or active ingredients that are not allowed, but also of doping practices or methods.
They are also aimed at artificially improving competitive performance. The most well-known practices, even if referable to other sports, are for example, auto-transfusions. But there are some methods which are still considered not entirely clear by the anti-doping commissions or to better define the issue, the rules are not the same for everyone.
The competitive season par excellence is starting to take shape in Australia and it is in the land of the kangaroos where, a few years ago, numerous players made use of, especially after physically exhausting games, the hyperbaric chambers (under the supervision of a center doctor who was located very close to Melbourne Park).
Although, it has now become common for players to use this therapy at other tournaments, too, Serbian player Novak Djokovic was one of the first to declare that he used it regularly, together with other colleagues, praising the qualities of recovery and oxygenation of the tissues that brought this method as a gift (you can breathe 100% pure oxygen while the quantity in the air is 21%).
But why do we mention this therapy? Well we mention it because it is not legal for all, and not the entirety of medical and scientific community thinks of it as healthy, although the advantages cannot be doubted. In Italy, for example, this practice is not yet legal unless accompanied by a medical prescription that certifies the actual need for use and is a practice after hypobaric/hypoxic therapy; even for Italian players abroad it is not lawful to use it since national and federal regulations must be respected.
These differences are highly discriminatory and should be reset to standardize the situations existing among the various players. The rules should be clear and the same for all and there must be no possibilities of multiple interpretations in the cases.
Doping or non-doping, doping practices or simple strategy, voluntary administrations or food poisoning? Tennis is a generally clean sport and doping cases are isolated. We hope it continues like this and that the doubt that an epic game or the career of a great champion is spoiled by deceptions of this kind can never linger. Happy tennis everyone!