Serena Williams expressed no qualms about anti-doping officers showing up unannounced to collect urine and, on occasion, blood samples. She wasn’t even bothered when it happened twice in the same week in the lead-up to this year’s French Open. It was like TSA searches at the airport — a minor inconvenience of her high-flying tennis career.
The five out-of-competition tests in the first six months of 2018 didn’t irritate Williams until she saw numbers, plucked from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s public database and included in a recent Deadspin article, that seemed to suggest she was being tested far more often than her compatriots in the sport.
The registered pool of performers included U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens and the finalist she beat, Madison Keys, who were listed as having one completed test, and Sam Querrey, the men’s world No. 13, who had none.
“I didn’t know I was being tested three times more — in some cases five times more — than everyone else,” Williams said Monday after her straight-sets victory over Arantxa Rus in the first round at Wimbledon.
Williams wasn’t alone in feeling aggrieved. When Keys heard about Williams’ five tests, she said, “My first thought was why has she only gotten tested five times when I’ve gotten tested eight or nine times.”
In the sweltering heat that has made southwest London in July feel like southwest Ohio, drug testing has become the mosquito buzzing around the All-England Club, making many players irritable and itching for a fight.
“I really want answers,” Williams said. “Like, then you hear people complaining about they don’t get tested. I’m like, ‘Well, you know. ... ‘”
It turns out that drug testing is a puzzle for which no athlete holds all the pieces, precluding any of them from seeing the complete picture. Deadspin didn’t have all the information.
Williams, for example, didn’t know that Keys had submitted to several out-of-competition tests administered by an anti-doping program operating under the auspices of the International Tennis Federation. And neither Williams nor Keys was aware that U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA, keeps a record of all completed tests in a public database that does not include the less transparent ITF program results.
It’s as if USADA, in its pursuit of full transparency, has created a false positive, sowing a climate of wariness and confusion among elite athletes instead of an atmosphere of trust and confidence.
Travis Tygart, the chief executive officer of USADA, said the Deadspin article had spurred a great discussion.
“I’m glad athletes are engaging in it,” he said Monday by telephone.
Nobody’s purposes are being served, he added, “if there is no level of accountability or when people are making false conclusions based on a partial picture.”
For U.S. athletes in other Olympic sports, the testing numbers in tennis seem incomprehensibly incomplete. Long-distance runner Kara Goucher noted that she had submitted to 17 out-of-competition USADA tests in 2016, the year she narrowly missed a third Olympic berth. That same year, Williams had six.
“To be honest, I’m kind of shocked by those tennis numbers,” Goucher said by telephone.
Alluding to Williams’ career earnings of more than $84.8 million, Goucher added: “I’m just surprised there isn’t more testing in a sport where there’s so much more money than in track and field. As someone who has used Serena as an example of an athlete who has inspired me, I’d tell her, ‘You should want the testing to be as rigorous as it can be.”
Tennis players would prefer a random system of out-of-competition testing in which names are spit out of a machine like lottery balls. Giving voice to the prevailing sentiment, Williams said, “Just test everyone equally.”
With finite resources to catch athletes who are cheating and deter any who might be considering it, USADA opts for testing that is reasonable if not random. Tygart said athletes were selected for testing based on an algorithm that assesses internationally established risk factors, like performance improvement, ranking, biological analysis, the competition calendar, injury and research on doping trends.
To that list, the athletes would tack on one more factor: geography. Roger Federer, who maintains homes in Switzerland and Dubai, said he had been tested once in the past 15 years at his residence in the Middle East and laughably often when he is living near Basel, his hometown.
“The tester lives in the same village, so it’s very convenient,” Federer said. “If he’s bored at home, he probably just says, ‘Let me check in on Roger to see if he’s having a good time.'”
Federer laughed. “Maybe that’s the part I don’t like so much,” he added. “The inconsistency of the places where they test.”
Tennis players’ peripatetic lifestyle can turn drug testing into a global game of tag. Consider Keys, who when she is not competing can be found at her Florida home or with her California-based coach or with her Iowa-based mother.
“When I’m in the middle of nowhere, in Iowa when I’m at my mom’s, I don’t get tested quite as often as when I’m in Florida or LA,” she said.
Bob Bryan, like Williams, lives outside Miami, and he has historically been tested more often than his identical twin and doubles partner, Mike, who lives in sleepy Camarillo, California, an hour outside Los Angeles. This year, Bob, who has been sidelined with a hip injury since mid-May, is listed as having completed four USADA tests to Mike’s two. Bob has 56 career tests, more than Mike (43), Williams (41) or Williams’ sister Venus (43).
“I think I am tested more frequently because I live in a big city and am a very convenient option for drug testers,” Bob Bryan wrote in an email.
The USADA protocol requires athletes to provide a daily one-hour window in which they must be available for drug testing. In addition, athletes can be subjected to extended tests, which are administered outside the scheduled 60-minute window and are meant to deter anyone from manipulating the data in a biological passport through microdosing or other methods.
“In the past, I have walked a drug tester to my front door only to be greeted by another from a different organization,” Bryan said, adding, “I am strongly in favor of organizations helping to keep our sport clean, but when I continually have to open my front door to unannounced testing agents, at times I feel it is a bit excessive.”
Tygart said USADA’s continuing logistical challenge was to allocate its resources efficiently and effectively. “Obviously, we don’t want athletes to feel like there’s ever a loophole in the terms of there being any location where they won’t be tested,” he said.
U.S. anti-doping officials aim to avoid multiple testing situations like the one Bryan described by tracking the completed tests administered by the international sports federations. But as much as USADA aims to work around other tests, the lag time between the administering of the tests and the filing of the results to the World Anti-Doping Agency makes some gaps in information inevitable.
Querrey grew indignant upon hearing that the USADA database had credited him with no completed out-of-competition tests this year.
After advancing to the semifinals of Wimbledon and the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open last year and ascending to a career-best No. 11 in the rankings in February, Querrey figured he would be targeted more frequently for tests. And he insisted that he had been.
“I’ve probably been tested at my house this year seven times,” Querrey said, adding, “I feel like I get tested at home eight to 10 times a year and at tournaments 10 times a year. It’s a ton.”
The USADA numbers don’t reflect out-of-competition tests administered by tennis’ anti-doping program or in-competition tests at tournaments. Further complicating the picture, one visit could result in two test results if blood and urine samples are collected.
It is conceivable that USADA officials, after noting the frequency with which Querrey was being tested outside of competition by tennis’ anti-doping program, shifted their focus to other players, including Williams, who had a child last year and has played very few tournaments.
Querrey’s commitment to a clean sport is for the life of his career, which is why he set aside one hour in the morning, as usual, for USADA collection officers to test him the day he was married to model Abby Dixon in Florida last month. To Querrey’s relief, no uninvited guests crashed his wedding.