Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Being Jon Wertheim

“When you declare a contemporary athlete clean, you do so at your own peril. But it’s not just unlikely that a top tennis player’s success or muscles or stamina is the product of anything other than genetics and industriousness. It’s damn near impossible.”
    – Jon Wertheim, Strokes Of Genius, pp162-3.

Now that is a bold (and laughable) statement that cuts right to the heart of the matter. There’s no going back from a statement like that without admitting you’ve made a significant error. And that is the problem with Jon Wertheim on the issue of doping. A change in opinion would be costly because it would reveal that he didn't study the issue in serious detail.

So, what does Mr. Wertheim offer to support his baseless assertion?

Here are his main points (the discussion of doping runs from pp158-163):

“First, tennis doesn’t especially lend itself to doping. It’s more a sport of hand-eye coordination, technique, and mental fitness than it is a sport of raw speed and brute strength.” (p161)
“Second, and more important, tennis has one of the most rigorous and systematic anti-doping policies in all of sports.” (p161)
I've debunked these two myths before (see here), so I won't repeat myself. Instead, I'll take on a couple of the other points Wertheim makes.

"I've asked a number of players, from stars to the proletariat, to estimate what percentage of their colleagues they suspect are doping. I've yet to hear an answer in excess of "maybe a few." (p161)
One word, Jon: Omerta.

Also, given the scant amount of doping violations in tennis, even if you believe only "a few" percent (e.g., 2 percent) of players are doping, it means almost all of them are beating the tests (or not being tested at all). Why? The rank of the lowest ranked player on the ATP Tour is 1,954. Well, 2 percent of 1,954 players would be 39 players. However, only 3 ATP players were caught for doping in 2011. Women's testing is even worse as no WTA players were caught for doping in 2011, but 1 female wheelchair player was caught. And by the way, the head of WADA say up to 10 percent of athletes could be doping.
Further, I guess Wertheim never asked Mahesh "A lot of players have been cheating" Bhupathi about doping in tennis. Or what of Rochus, Nestor, Fish, McEnroe, or pre-2012 Courier? Next point, please.
“What’s more, it’s difficult for athletes with an eleven-month season to cycle on and off a doping regime.” (p161)
This is another specious assertion that Wertheim offers without any evidence. How many times have we read about top players (e.g., Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, the Williams sisters) taking three, four, five, or even six weeks off? What of players skipping tournaments (or Davis Cup)? There are many mini-breaks (or "injury" breaks) throughout the tennis season that can be used to cycle on. And it’s clear that the post-US Open through early/mid-December period can be used to cycle off. I have more on the ability to dope during the tennis season here.

“Although the testing is random at tournaments, as a matter of ritual, the winners – i.e., Federer and Nadal – are forced to submit blood or urine samples. (The rationale: tennis wants to demonstrate that its champions are clean champions.)” (p162)

This is where Wertheim really betrays the depths of his ignorance (or "willful denial"). He fails to recognize that (1) the testing of a tournament winners only takes place after championship matches at Grand Slam events, the rest of the testing at a Grand Slam event is loser-targeted (i.e., not truly random); (2) this loser-targeted distribution means the post-championship match test is the only time the “winner” is tested at a Grand Slam because the ITF tests players no more than once per draw entered; and (3) doping distributions are completely different at non-Grand Slam events (e.g., in 2009, doping controls for non-Grand Slam events ended, on average, 4 days before the tournament finished and at none of these tournaments did a post-championship match doping control take place; and last, in 2009 and 2008, the Rogers Cup Masters in Canada had no doping controls at all).

There is no excuse for Wertheim's ill-informed statements on testing at tournaments. He makes reference to the ITF's 2008 anti-doping statistics on page 161 and plays up the online availability of the statistics on page 162 of the book. This means that he (or his research assistant) gave them only a cursory glance.

There's more in those 5 pages that I could correct/dispel, but I've done enough to make my point. I have no doubt Stuart Miller was smiling when he read the book.

But, let me leave you (and Jon) with a couple of excerpts from a new piece by Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci about the steroid era in baseball:

"Within a few days I started gaining weight," [Dan] Naulty says, "and I was hooked. I started eating like a horse because when you take this stuff you just eat and eat and eat and you can work out like a fiend."

...Naulty would use various steroids through the winter, gain muscle mass and velocity, and wow the coaches in camp. He would not use steroids during the season, causing him to lose some weight -- about 10 pounds if he had gained 20 -- and his numbers to fall off as the year progressed. Then it was back to an off-season of doping, with a veritable buffet of steroids. "We were mixing them," he says. "Some for size, some for speed. There was a steroid I took one off-season that was purely to speed your body up. You didn't gain any size at all. [Your arm speed] just got faster. The point was the faster I moved the harder I'd throw."
 And this,
"I was, at best, an average hitter," [Jeff] Horn says. "A good fastball could tie me up. When I had the stuff in me I could get to those pitches easier. With steroids you could do those things you otherwise couldn't do. The things that kept you in the minor leagues all of a sudden didn't hold you back anymore. It's not like you could take a guy off the street, give him steroids and he can hit a Jered Weaver fastball. But if you have the ability to do it, you can get a little help doing things you were not able to do."
Still don't think tennis "lends" itself to performance enhancing drugs because it requires "technique" and "hand-eye coordination"?

Here endeth the lesson.


  1. Found them…

    I knew they would be somewhere. Here are the doping controls stats for tennis I pulled together for 2004.

    Firstly urine over 1500 tests

    And Blood only 130 odd but hey this was first year pretty much of blood testing.

    I published these stats annually including a breakdown of which players got tested when and where. Note this was before OOC testing. I considered it important to show how often players were tested as it overcome the question of "you test me but not him" in the locker room.

    Agassi had low test numbers during this period as he was largely playing Challengers (with the odd Slam wildcard) I recall due to his low ranking and other personal issues.

    The players never complained about this type of reporting.

    1. In 2004, Agassi spent almost the entire year ranked in the top 7, and he never dropped below 11. He lost in 5 sets to Safin at the AO and in 5 sets to Federer at the USO. He played 3 majors (skipped Wimbledon), and he played in 5 Masters Series. I'm not sure how you would mistake his 1997 year for 2004.

    2. Well spotted dave! They were probably scared to test Agassi cause last time they wanted to surprise him with a test he left teh AO on the day he arrived and flew back to the US.

      Agassi is certainly a big suspect when it comes to doping. YOu coudl see his guilty feeling on his the pressure mounted in a match! LOL!

    3. Yup, Agassi was ridiculous. Sprinting around endlessly in 5 sets at the age of 34 (and he made the UO final a year later!), stretching Fed/Safin and co, the obvious bulking up. No wonder so many of his peers openly accused him of doping.

      I wonder if he was just an early precursor to what tennis has become, where players just don't age anymore. Will be interesting to see where we're at in a couple of years - at the current rate, half of R3 in a slam will be 30+.

    4. Richard,

      You may have "only" done about 130 blood tests in 2004. But, guess what? In 2011, the ITF only did 131 blood tests.

    5. "Agassi had low test numbers during this period as he was largely playing Challengers (with the odd Slam wildcard) I recall due to his low ranking and other personal issues."

      Is that what you recall, Richard? I want some of whatever you were smoking in 2004!
      If you are going to show some integrity, you will now have to admit that if you were wrong about what tournaments Agassi was in, then it is likely that he was finding a way to ditch drug testing during your tenure. You are really starting to embarrass yourself.

  2. (Naulty): "There was a steroid I took one off-season that was purely to speed your body up. You didn't gain any size at all. [Your arm speed] just got faster. The point was the faster I moved the harder I'd throw.""

    That's what I'm thinking is a rather underappreciated aspect of doping in tennis. With modern equipment, the ability to whip through the ball and generate huge rackethead speed is key for a lot of the top guys.