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Wednesday, February 6, 2013
The fix is in

By Howard Bryant
ESPN The Magazine

Bryant Illo
If players were smart, they'd demand answers to the PED questions haunting their sport.

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THE THEME OF January's Australian Open, played in the shadow of Lance Armstrong's confession, was the mystery surrounding the word "recovery." Following his brutal marathon win over Stanislas Wawrinka, men's champ Novak Djokovic offered a vague account of his regimen, saying only that his restoration process is "legal." That same week, the Czech press speculated that veteran Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, who was not playing in Melbourne, had failed a drug test. The International Tennis Federation, the body that oversees and administers the sport's drug-testing program, stayed silent on the matter; it does not comment on alleged offenses. But that only raised the specter of performance-enhancing drugs all the more.

In the late 1990s, few in baseball wanted to admit, despite mounting circumstantial evidence that transformed into overwhelming truth, that two plus two plus two actually equaled six. The PED cannon is now pointed at tennis. In Madrid, during the ongoing Operation Puerto trial related to doping in cycling, disgraced doctor Eufemiano Fuentes testified that he treated tennis players, among other athletes. The greatest Spanish pro, Rafael Nadal, has fought off doping allegations for years while his eight-month absence grows more curious. Dr. Luis Garcia del Moral, banned for life by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for his role in the doping program run by Armstrong's former team, once was the physician to Italian pro Sara Errani, who rose from 45th to sixth in the world last year. (She says she dropped him once his cycling ban was announced.) Del Moral also served as a consulting doctor to TenisVal, the academy used by Errani, No. 15 Maria Kirilenko and No. 4 David Ferrer, whose game is built on a tireless, grinding style for which recovery is key.

Meanwhile, the product on the court -- with its punishing rallies in marathon matches and little recuperation time -- invites skepticism, the same as baseball did with its inflated homers. No A-list tennis player has failed a drug test for PEDs, but history has taught the lesson that beating a test is no exoneration. Sammy Sosa was never suspended for testing positive. Neither was Barry Bonds.

History also has taught us that if a sport hides rather than confronts, the circumstantial will soon overwhelm the truth. The nonsense of trying to determine which players dope simply through body type, comportment and playing style will become irrefutable fact. The muscles of Serena Williams and Samantha Stosur will be proof of their guilt, as will Djokovic's remarkable stamina and Errani's and Ferrer's unexpected success; Alexandr Dolgopolov weighs only 160 pounds and Roger Federer is a nice guy, so they will be thought clean.

If the players wish to avoid the witch-hunt dynamic that ruined baseball, this is the time to act. During the Australian Open, both men's finalists, Djokovic and Andy Murray, called for increased blood testing and more frequent out-of-competition testing. It was a definitive stance from two of the game's top players -- a stance that none of baseball's best chose to adopt. But in so doing, Djokovic and Murray openly revealed the huge testing loopholes that exist.

According to the ITF, only 21 out-of-competition blood tests were conducted in 2011. Whether by blood or urine, the ITF did not test the Williams sisters once out of competition in '11. And as many critics have pointed out, while the sport has raised prize money for the major tournaments and renovated its venues, it hasn't increased its testing budget or improved its protocols. Tennis pays out roughly $300 million in prize money yet budgets just $2 million for its doping program and has cut back on blood tests, especially for EPO -- the one test tennis needs because it helps increase endurance and recovery -- because of high costs.

If tennis's governing bodies are unconvinced that action is necessary, they should give Bud Selig a call. The players should talk to Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and all the MLB players who, if they were legitimately clean after all the guilt by association, now probably wish they had said more and done more to protect their reputations and accomplishments.

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