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Does tennis catch doping cheats or ruin careers?

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Simona Halep greets the Miami Open crowd after her return

Simona Halep returned to the WTA Tour in March after one of the highest-profile doping bans in recent tennis history (Getty Images)

A system designed to uncover cheating in tennis has come under intense scrutiny following the suspension of former Wimbledon champion Simona Halep for a doping offence.

British doubles player Tara Moore, who lost two years of her career, has also raised questions. She recently returned after contaminated meat was deemed to be the source of her failed test.

Those within the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA), the independent body created by the sport’s governing bodies to fulfill the mission of providing “tennis you can trust”, insist it is still fit for purpose. .

“No one wants to catch tennis players or ruin their careers for no reason. But we are guided by evidence and independent experience to reach a conclusion,” an ITIA source told BBC Sport.

Others who have seen their careers derailed by what some perceive as complicated and unfair processes are not convinced.

“For them it is a procedure. It has a function: to impose on us the greatest possible punishment according to the accusation,” said former world number 75 Kamil Majchrzak, suspended for 13 months after failing a doping test in 2022.

“But it’s our lives that are on the limit, not theirs.”

Are players suffering disproportionate damage?

Halep, a two-time Grand Slam champion, periodically criticized the ITIA process while her case was ongoing, describing it as a “terrible ordeal.”

His former coach, Darren Cahill, accused the ITIA of making “false accusations and false narratives”, demanding a “complete review” of its functioning.

ITIA chief executive Karen Moorhouse acknowledges that the case of former world number one Halep “raised some fair and important questions”. But the agency rejects Cahill’s call and says he is doing everything by the rules.

The ITIA enforces the rules set by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and could be investigated if it is found not to be enforcing them properly.

Like Halep, Majchrzak failed a test in 2022 and maintained his innocence. He says the case has caused significant “trauma.”

The 28-year-old had played regularly in all four Grand Slams, represented Poland at the 2020 Olympics and reached a career-high ranking when he was told a urine test showed traces of an anabolic steroid.

Majchrzak argued that an herbal nutritional drink was contaminated. Testing by the ITIA on several unopened sachets of the supplement confirmed that they explained their adverse test results.

Having been provisionally suspended for seven months, he decided not to further challenge the 13-month suspension imposed. He was able to start playing again in January.

“I really put a lot of effort into working with my psychologist, coaches, wife and family to get through the worst period where I really didn’t have the best life,” he told BBC Sport.

“My life had no meaning and no purpose. My whole life had revolved around tennis. Suddenly I didn’t know if I was going to play again. It was devastating.”

Moore, 31, was banned in May 2022 after Boldenone and Nandrolone, anabolic steroids on Wada’s banned list, were found in her system.

In December 2023, an independent panel ruled that meat consumed while playing in Colombia was the source of both substances.

After the ruling, Moore described “19 months of emotional anguish” in which he watched his “reputation, ranking and livelihood slowly fade away.”

However, the case is not over yet. The ITIA is appealing the decision that both substances in its system were the result of contaminated meat.

Moore resumed his career at a low-profile event in Sardinia this week, a month after launching a fundraising page to aid her return.

Majchrzak estimates he spent “100,000 or 150,000 euros” on his case, and is still dipping into his savings as he travels the world trying to rebuild his career.

A player is unranked when he returns and relies on wildcards from understanding tournament directors to participate in events.

Majchrzak feels “blessed” to have been invited to play at the bottom of the rankings in Tunisia and Egypt.

The small amount of ranking points earned has been an invaluable springboard.

This encouraged him to travel to Rwanda to play in two events on the ATP Challenger Tour, the level below the main ATP Tour, and took advantage of a small entry list to play. He ended up winning one of the titles.

This month he traveled to more Challenger events in China and Taiwan, not guaranteed entry to the tournaments but hoping to qualify.

“I’m still suffering financially: I still have to live, I still have to eat, I still have to function,” Majchrzak said.

“Playing futures, I have to travel there and I keep losing money. I’ve kept losing money for the last 16 months.”

Is there any flexibility in the rules?

In 2023, the ITIA conducted 7,247 in- and out-of-competition doping tests. Of these, 13 were failed tests and led to provisional suspensions.

Halep and Majchrzak were two of three top-100 players banned, and American Jenson Brooksby was also banned after missing three doping tests in one year.

“We believe that the vast majority of tennis players are clean and we intend to comply with the rules of the Tennis Anti-Doping Program (TADP),” says the ITIA.

“It is also fair to say that some athletes will choose to cheat and others may inadvertently or inadvertently break the rules.”

Halep steadfastly insisted she was clean after being accused of two separate doping offences.

He was initially given a four-year suspension by an independent panel, but his punishment was reduced to nine months by the Court of Arbitration for Sports (Cas).

Cas partially upheld the original decision, but ruled that “on the balance of probabilities” he had not intentionally taken roxadustat.

The ITIA agreed that Majchrzak did not intentionally consume banned substances. But he was found to be “strictly responsible” and should have known there is a “significant risk” with the supplements.

While trying to avoid being seen as the “police” by players, the ITIA says there is no “careless flexibility” under the World Anti-Doping Code.

“Any anti-doping violation, whether deliberate or not, can have multiple consequences,” he adds.

Majchrzak’s coach Marcel du Coudray recently claimed The ITIA shows little empathy and “bullies” athletes into accepting punishments.

The ITIA strongly denies these allegations.

Majchrzak didn’t use the same language as Du Coudray, but he feels some players have no choice, financially and psychologically, but to back down.

“My lawyers said I had a very strong case and a great chance of winning if we went to Cas. But they warned that the process could take many more months.

“They didn’t think the offer was very fair, but they told me it was the best they could get under the circumstances.”

Why do cases take so long?

Halep, 32, missed 17 months of what will likely be the twilight of her career. That was how long she had been suspended when her initial suspension of four years was reduced on appeal to a suspension shorter than the time she had already served.

Moore finally returned on April 30, nearly two years after being provisionally suspended.

Investigations into failed doping tests are often complex, especially when a player denies knowingly taking a substance.

A player will present evidence to refute or mitigate the failed test, leading to further investigation and testing by the ITIA.

In Halep’s case, the independent court received around 8,000 pages of evidence from the player’s lawyers and the ITIA.

“Bringing a case to hearing and subsequent decision is the end of a process that requires a lot of time and resources, and which we recognize is stressful for people,” the ITIA said.

“Our preference remains to prevent problems from occurring at their source, which is why we continue to prioritize prevention and education.”

Majchrzak understands the complexities, but says cases need to be resolved faster.

“I had one version of events from the beginning, with evidence and details explained. I sent everything they asked me very quickly and we didn’t have many email exchanges.

“It was still seven months before I received the 13-month offer.

“Tennis careers don’t last very long and we are losing time in a formal process.”

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