Tennis slow to flush out dopers at Flushing Meadows and beyond
Intensity of the modern game raises questions that the game’s leaders are failing to answer
Italy’s Gianluigi Quinzi has has been copping flak for youthfully blurting out the suspicion that has to have been nagging even the most dewy-eyed of tennis fans, namely that there is doping in the sport. Photograph: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)
The US Open begins today. That means little to some of you. Even if you’re afflicted by the urge to impose all sorts of intellectual and emotional depths on to what is basically the athletic creation of sweat, there’s plenty going on closer to home rather than glancing across an ocean to a large mass of concrete built on top of an old dump.
But Flushing Meadows is something special for those of us in thrall to the sweaty spanking of a small ball over a net.
This is the last major of the year so there’s always an element of last chance saloon and it produces a rather special atmosphere which crackles through, even to those of us who’ve never been near the place.
If Wimbledon prides itself on gentility, Roland Garros on a hubristic grandeur, and Melbourne on its determination to having a good time, Flushing Meadows couldn’t give a continental what you think about it. New York hardly has enough time to focus on its own heaving navel without worrying about anyone else’s. So no sports event can ever impinge on the Big Apple’s relentless tempo.
Thus the cream of the world’s tennis talent will compete against the din of low-flying aircraft, stands packed with mouthy, hot-dog-chomping fans possessing only minimal information on the players but shouting advice to them anyway, during open-air night matches containing musical changeovers, beer, dip and the unshakable belief that New York is the centre of the universe.
In purely tennis terms it’s a brutal environment. The bald blue concrete is an unforgiving surface anyway. But coming on the back of a month of hard-court competition throughout North America, there is an element of last-man-standing to whoever’s champion.
It’s a huge test of mind and body, so it’s no coincidence the US Open roll-of-honour is probably the most star-filled in the game, especially the men’s.
You won’t find a Michael Stich, a Thomas Johansson, or a Gáston Gaudio; one-hit wonders hitting a Grand Slam hot streak at just the right time. The Open can melt even the hottest streak if it’s not backed by consistent quality and resolution.
What Flushing Meadows does is identify the best playing at their best.
Sampras fluked a final win in 2002, six years past his prime, but realised it immediately and never picked up a racket again. The Pistol was a glorious exception. McEnroe, Connors, Lendl, Agassi won at Flushing Meadows at their peak.
Federer’s five-in-a-row (2004-08) represented his pinnacle years. Now he’s trying for a Sampras-like lash hurrah and only the most unsentimental won’t wish him well.
But flinty, hard-ass New York ain’t great at sentiment, and it ain’t great on ageing limbs either. It is what it is, probably the most brutal tennis test of all, stretching players to the limits. Except what are the limits? And how often can they be visited?
Recently the junior Wimbledon champion Gianluigi Quinzi has been copping flak for youthfully blurting out the suspicion that has to have been nagging even the most dewy-eyed of tennis fans.
“Doping in tennis?” he declared. “When you see players play five set matches and then walk back onto court the next day and play with the same intensity, it’s difficult not to think the worst.”
Quinzi has presumably been as popular as a fungus in the locker room on the back of that, and his willingness to fling around some top names is as judicially suspect as his outspokenness is adolescent. But good on him. Because the willingness to confront the doping scourge appears to be as opaque as Quinzi is blunt.
The former top-15 player, Croatia’s Marin Cilic, may or may not be currently banned. It’s unclear. He was reportedly informed of a positive test – taken in April – during Wimbledon, but officially withdrew due to a knee injury.
The Tennis Federation has yet to even make a statement on the matter, which is a remarkable lack of transparency in a sport that the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency has said possesses a major problem with drugs, but sadly resonates with a head-in-the-sand attitude common to so many sports authorities.
In recent years we have marvelled at remarkable feats of recovery, with players flogging their guts out over epic five-setters and then emerging, even the next day, to do exactly the same thing again.
Such feats of endurance are routinely explained away through better sports science, more advanced conditioning techniques, diet; and of course there is always the escape route of the truly desperate who resort to words such as “freakish” to explain what sense and reason suggest shouldn’t really be consistently occurring.
The insidiousness of doping plays on our impulse to ignore logic in favour of investing in the remarkable. Logic isn’t a seat-filler. Most of us want to believe. And the tragedy is when the truly remarkable gets cast under the same pall of suspicion as the fraudulent.
The Open is going to present some fantastic moments over the next fortnight, many of them revolving around the sort of physical endurance that defines this tournament. Suspicion that some of them may not be completely kosher is something to make true fans heart-sore.
Quinzi’s comments don’t contain hard evidence. But blithely dismissing them as just another teenage rant is surely a cop-out tennis can’t afford.