Serena Williams is the most dominant tennis player in the history of women’s tennis. During the baseball performance enhancer era, all of the sports world turned a blind eye. I find myself asking the same question every time I see Serena. Why isn’t anyone questioning her for PED use? I am a fan of Barry Bonds and find myself at odds with how the sports media has treated The two so differently. Please look at the photo below. They both have significant changes in body chemistry, success later in their careers and have done so while making history.
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answer from anonymous but very informed visitor :
One cannot provide a simple Yes or No answer to your question without formal data as evidence, which unfortunately is very in-transparent and unavailable in pro-tennis. However, like many tennis insiders, fans and commentators, I strongly believe that Serena Williams is indeed on steroids. Unfortunately, she is not the only one who might be benefiting from PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs), many believe that pro-tennis is rife with drug use.
Before talking about Williams in particular, maybe some background would help. Drug testing in tennis has been criticized as being rather weak. There are two kinds of testing – In-competition (IC) and Out-of-Competition (OC). Tennis mostly uses ICs on losing players, that too through simple urine tests that are not capable of detecting more sophisticated blood doping. In addition, the OCs are poorly administered with no accountability. Often, players skip the surprise OCs with no consequences whatsoever. Compared to other sports, tennis sees minimal OC testing and blood testing. Many insiders have also alleged that the WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) and ITF (International Tennis Federation) cover up failed drug tests of big players by letting them pull out of tournaments, citing injuries. They also reduce or cancel doping related suspensions with no explanations whatsoever.
One can also refer to the following ESPN report which talks about the problems with PEDs in tennis:
OTL: Tennis’ clean image on PEDs is no accident
Several tennis players have admitted to use of PEDs and recreational drugs. (For e.g. John McEnroe – steroids, Richard Gasquet – cocaine) According to an anonymous poll conducted by ESPN, over 22% of the players said they knew a player who was on PED.
Against this backdrop, several top players including Serena have come under the lens. Serena has faced allegations of drug use throughout her career and for good reason.
It was alleged that she managed to evade drug testers (for OC) entirely for two years in 2010 and 2011. She covered up failed ICs by citing phantom injuries. She also famously locked herself in a panic room and called 911 when an out-of-competition tester called on her in October 2011. She never provided a sample afterwards and the tennis authorities did not answer why.
Serena was one of the players (including Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsey Davenport) who protested against the WTA’s new drug testing rules in 2000 which led to the cancellation of WTA’s off-season testing program too. She has protested vociferously against any attempts made by the WTA/ITF to make testing more rigorous and stringent. She once reportedly declared that “women don’t need to be tested because women don’t take steroids”. She also raised similar objections before the 2004 Olympics in Athens until the WTA gave in. However, the IOC did not and Williams ended up withdrawing from the games citing “terrorism fears” in Greece!
A number of critics have pointed to Serena’s body and muscle size to allege use of steroids. However, it is not the best indicator in my opinion. Many black (and non-black) athletes are muscular and it is unfair to brand someone a doper on the basis of looks.
A stronger and more incriminating pointer was the pulmonary embolism and hematoma that Williams suffered in March 2011. Since embolisms and DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) are often associated with sedentary lifestyles, it is surprising when healthy athletes develop the condition. However, it is not rare and there is enough evidence to suggest a link between anabolic steroid use and embolisms in athletes. In fact, anabolic steroid use is one of the biggest risk factors for the condition. Some body builders will also agree that hematomas often occur while injecting steroids.
Another factor is Serena’s playing schedule. She takes an awful amount of time off during the year, playing only a few tournaments other than the Grand Slams. Many have questioned how it is possible for a player to win and dominate the game the way Serena does, while not playing it actively through the year. Is she super-human or does she need the time-off for her “juicing cycle”?
Over the years, Serena has exhibited unpleasant and bizarre on-court behavior that may be attributed to “roid rage” – a“mysterious illness” that caused her to forfeit a Wimbledon doubles match due to poor co-ordination, death threats that she aimed at a line judge during a 2009 US Open semifinal, breaking racquets, a tirade against an umpire during the 2011 US Open final etc.
The voices against doping in pro-tennis in general and against Serena Williams in particular, are getting louder and more confident as new data comes to light every year. The Sharapova episode is perhaps only the tip of the iceberg. One could look up Serena on tennishasasteroidproblem.blogspot (an insider, whistle-blower blog) for more comprehensive data and analysis on this question.
To conclude, the best answer that one can have at this point to your question is – HIGHLY LIKELY. Given the current state of things, who knows if she will ever be caught!
UPDATE 15 Sep 2016: In the light of WADA’s data published by Fancy Bears, the group allied with Anonymous, the hacktivist entity, this question has become even more pertinent. TUEs allow athletes to take banned substances solely for the purpose of treating injuries or inflammation, for a brief period (usually a few days). Some commentators were quick to point out that some of the TUEs (Therapeutic Use Exemptions) given to Serena Williams were backdated, which means that they were authorized much after the medication was taken, with the complicity of ITF.
One Russian official Perviy Kanal described the U.S. athletes as “invalids” on a pro-Kremlin TV channel. “I have the impression that we are dealing with invalids, because they are prescribed incredible combinations of potent drugs. Three of them are narcotics, for the distribution of which one can receive a long prison sentence both in Russia and in Europe” he said.
Given the politics that pervade anti-doping administration worldwide, this does not necessarily prove anything. However it is important to note that backdated TUEs did come up during the investigation of Lance Armstrong (another athlete who never got caught for many years). Fancy Bears is only alleging that Serena abused the TUE system to dope but many believe that the rot extends much beyond TUEs alone.
UPDATE 1 Oct 2016: A couple of news outlets have reported that Serena told CNN that she plans to take a break from tennis as she is “tired of playing tournaments unhealthy”. This was in spite of playing only 8 tournaments this year.
What I find interesting about this announcement is that it comes right after the Fancy Bears leak and more importantly recent ITF ruling that they’re going to do away with “silent bans” in order to salvage their reputation from further damage.
Obviously, this means that players who have been covering up bans with phantom injuries (like Serena?) may not be able to do so any longer.
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