Andy Murray, the world number three ranked tennis player, says his sport needs to step up its anti-doping efforts including out-of-competition testing – but maintains that tennis differs from cycling in being primarily focused on the skill of the athlete, something he believes doesn’t apply in cycling, which he claims is more about physical attributes.
“I think there's very little skill involved in the Tour de France, it's pretty much just physical," said Murray, quoted in the Herald. "A lot of the way the teams work now is just science whereas with tennis, you can't teach the skill by taking a drug.
"Virtually the whole of the Tour de France was taking drugs 10 years ago,” he maintained, claiming that since 1990 tennis had seen around “65 positive tests, 10 of them recreational and 30 to 35 performance-enhancing in that time.”
The Olympic and US Open men’s singles champion, speaking in a press conference ahead of this week’s Paribas Paris Masters that was reported by Mail Online and The Herald, added in a sweeping generalisation that apparently went unchallenged: “In one year of the Tour de France you had more than that so I don't think tennis has been that bad. But that isn't to say that more can't be done to make it 100% sure there are no issues."
Admittedly, in the notorious Festina Tour of 1998, there was clear evidence of wholesale doping involving a number of teams, and fewer than half the riders who set out from Dublin finished the race in Paris due to expulsions and withdrawals, but not a single rider actually tested positive.
The truth is that with no test for EPO at the time, the riders had an advantage over the testers, and it was only by seizing the physical drugs that the authorities were able to unravel the scale of the problem.
While cycling clearly still isn’t rid of doping, and in all likelihood never will be, there is a much higher level of testing than is the case in tennis. However, Murray implies that due to the nature of their sport, tennis players have less to gain from using performance enhancing drugs, although there are longstanding rumours linking several leading tennis players to use of steroids in particular to help build their strength.
In the past, he has criticised the intrusiveness of random testing, but now believes it is essential to combat doping, especially in the off season.
“The out-of-competition stuff could probably get better,” admitted the 25-year-old, who revealed he himself had been subject to a random blood test at the weekend.
“When we’re in December, when people are training and setting their bases, it would be good to do more around that time.
“On Saturday night it was completely random and that’s good because we’re not used to doing many blood tests.
“I’ve probably had four or five blood tests this year, but a lot more urine, so it’s obviously completely necessary when you hear things like about [Lance] Armstrong.
“It’s a shame for their sport but how they managed to get away with it was incredible, for so long.”
Critics of tennis’s approach to doping argue however that that the sport must do much more to address the issue and that it does far too little testing particularly of top players.
In 2010, for example, a year that Murray spent ranked between third and fifth in the world, he did not undergo a single out-of-competition test.
During the same year, there were no out-of competition tests on three of the top five ranked women’s players – world number one Caroline Wozniacki, plus Venus and Serena Williams.
Earlier this month, an article on the website of the US magazine Tennis Now explored various hypotheses regarding doping in tennis and pointed out that while according to World Anti Doping Agency Statistics for the period from 2007 to 2011, the International Tennis Federation showed 53 positive tests, there were only 21 anti-doping rule violations recorded in the same period.
The magazine quoted the blog Tennis Has a Steroid Problem as asking: “What accounts for the difference between positive tests and violations? Did players have Therapeutic Use Exemptions allowing them to use a banned substance? Did their 'B' Sample test negative? Did a tribunal find that the players did not commit a violation? If so, what was the reason for their finding?”
While high profile doping cases in the sport remain few and far between – the biggest in recent years being when the American player Wayne Odesnik was caught red-handed with human growth hormone at Brisbane airport, eventually serving a 12-month ban, reduced from an original two years – tennis itself is now facing some uncomfortable questions.
In August, when former US Postal Service team doctor Luis Garcia del Moral was handed a lifetime ban by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, the ITF acknowledged that he had worked with “various tennis players.”
It said that it would help enforce and give effect to USADA’s decision, including “not permitting Dr Garcia del Moral to participate in any capacity in, and denying him accreditation for or access to, any sanctioned tennis event or activity.”
The ITF added: “Players are asked to take careful note of the above when considering who to seek treatment, guidance and advice from in the future.”
Also in Spain, Dr Eufemiano Fuentes, the sports physician at the centre of the Operacion Puerto scandal in which athletes sanctioned were almost exclusively cyclists and non-Spanish nationals, has maintained in the past that he counted tennis players among his clients.
Whether he will name names or provide further details of his activities when the case goes to trial in Madrid in the new year remains to be seen.