Saturday 21 July 2018

Comment: Serena Williams soiling her legacy by slamming drug testers

Serena Williams. Photo: Getty Images
Serena Williams. Photo: Getty Images

Cathal Dennehy

She is, without question, the greatest female tennis player of all time. In an era of unparalleled depth, Serena Williams has racked up 39 Grand Slam titles (23 singles, 16 doubles), won $84million in prize money and is considered, quite rightly, as one of the all-time sporting greats.

At its peak, her game is as peerless as it is powerful: shotgun serve, thunderous groundstrokes, coupled with a methodical tennis mind and one of the most wrought-iron wills in world sport.

As she returns to tennis following the birth of her daughter, she is priced up at second favourite to win this year's Wimbledon title despite being ranked just 183rd in the world, a testament to her astonishing ability.

But Serena has a problem, a strange distaste for an unglamorous part of her job: drug-testing.

Back in 2011, there was the bizarre situation of Williams hiding in her panic room when testers arrived at her LA mansion, dialling 911 as she believed them to be intruders.

Then, in an article on Deadspin last week, it was reported that Williams complained to both the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) about the frequency of drug-testing after an incident when USADA testers sought to obtain a sample from her at her home in Florida.

The report stated that the doping control officer arrived at 8.30am and, given Williams was not present, refused to leave until she had been tested - which, for whatever reason, never happened on that particular day.

A spokeswoman for Williams, apparently not down with the whole anti-doping thing, released a statement saying "there is absolutely no reason for this kind of invasive and targeted treatment."

A few weeks earlier, Williams had taken to Twitter to vent her frustrations: "And…. just like that anti doping is here …again… second time this week. Proud to participate to keep the sport clean. Even if they do test me at my current ranking of 454 in the world. Two times every week. #BeingSerena"

But the statistics don't back up those claims, which would amount to more than 100 tests a year. Not even close.

According to the USADA database, Williams has been tested five times in 2018, not including the failed attempt on June 14, while statistics released by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) show she was tested between one and three times in-competition and out-of-competition in all of 2017.

The USADA database has a grand total of 41 recorded tests for Williams down through the years, and if that seems a lot, consider this: fellow American tennis player Bob Bryan has had 56 tests, despite his earnings being a fraction of Serena's.

US cyclist Taylor Phinney has been tested 90 times by USADA; distance runner Molly Huddle has been tested 74 times, while athlete Galen Rupp has been tested 167 times.

The easy explanation for that could be that cycling and athletics are higher-risk sports for doping so warrant more testing, but that theory crumbles when you consider the physical demands on modern tennis players, then weigh up the risk-reward ratio for those considering a move to the dark side.

The sport has evolved to one where fitness is more important than finesse, where power is quickly playing catch-up with precision, where endurance is so important than, deep in a five-set slugfest, a commentator will ask without a hint of self-awareness or scepticism, "where do they get the energy from?"

Last year, Williams earned $27million between prize money and endorsements, more than twice that of any other sportswoman. It's no less than she deserves, of course, but with all that reward comes responsibility.

Earlier this year, she was asked about her use of a corticosteroid at the 2015 French Open, which did not break any rules as she obtained a backdated Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), and her response to the query was indignation.

Louder

"Can you talk louder," she told the journalist, "so everyone can hear you ask about my drugs?"

While there was nothing to suggest Williams had, like certain other champions, abused the TUE system to gain an advantage, the acerbic attitude she displayed to a reasonable question was unsettling, particularly as the only other time she'd been asked it, during a French TV interview in 2016, she walked out.

Williams has been around tennis long enough to know the danger doping presents to its integrity. She's seen Maria Sharapova, Marin Cilic, Viktor Troicki and others return from doping bans - and these are the bans we know about - then carry on as if nothing happened.

She has a duty to her sport, to the anti-doping fight, to welcome drug testers wherever, whenever they feel like checking that she's doing things the right way.

The sport has a problem, and Williams should decide who the real enemies are: the cheats, or those trying to catch them.

Irish Independent

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