Brazilian lefthander Thomaz Bellucci hasn’t played since September, ostensibly because of an Achilles tendon injury.
But it turns out that the former top-25 player was serving a doping suspension, and no one knew it.
And because of that, not only did Bellucci have to claim injury throughout his absence, he also will miss the Australian Open.
It was revealed in the Brazilian media Thursday (the quotes here are from the website Esportes Mais) that the 31-year-old tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide and its metabolite, chloraminophenamide, during the Bastad Open in Sweden back in July.
As a result, he was given a five-month suspension, which was only revealed Thursday through an official statement from the player.
It’s a five-month ban, beginning Sept. 1, 2017 and expiring Jan. 31, 2018.
Bellucci claims the positive test comes from a contaminated supplement.
Hydrochlorothiazide is a diuretic often used as a masking agent, which is why it’s on the banned list.
No appeal, lawyer says
His lawyer, Pedro Fida, said the two parties agreed on Dec. 31 (the day after Bellucci’s 31st birthday) that the Brazilian wouldn’t appeal the suspension.
Fida said that the ITF was preparing a statement to be issued Friday (they like to drop on Fridays, to clear their desks off for the weekend). But he jumped ahead of the story, much like Maria Sharapova did for her positive test back in 2016., and Brit Dan Evans after his positive test for cocaine last summer.
Bellucci found out about the positive test after he had travelled to Shenzhen, China in mid-September.
“After a long review of the facts by the ITF, the entity opted for a soft sentence of five months, the minimum possible in a case like this, which could be up to four years, having taken into account the diligence and the reputation of Thomaz, as well as all medical and scientific evidence presented, together with the unintentional consumption of the substance and the lack of performance improvement,” Fida wrote in a statement.
“The ITF warned Thomaz with this (minimum) sanction because he understood that he should have checked the origin of the multivitamin, verified whether the dispensing pharmacy complied with regulatory standards and whether it was reliable.”
Account accepted, minimum suspension imposed
As a result of the news coming out, the ITF issued a statement Thursday e-mailed at nearly 11 p.m., London time.
“Mr. Bellucci’s account of how the hydrochlorothiazide got into his system was accepted and that he bears No Significant Fault or Negligence for the violation. The Programme provides for the start date of the period of ineligibility of five months to be backdated due to the prompt admission and for delays not attributable to Mr. Bellucci,” the ITF statement reads.
“Therefore, the start of the ban is back-dated by two and a half months … and by a further six weeks… As a result, the ban is deemed to have started on 1 September 2017, and so will expire at midnight on 31 January 2018.”
In the Esporto Mais piece, Bellucci says he would never take a diuretic, pointing out that he has trouble keeping weight on, not the reverse.
(The Brazilian is one of the heaviest sweaters on Tour; there is some evidence that hydrochlorothiazid can cause excessive sweating).
But, of course, that’s not the reason athletes in the past have misused hydrochlorothiazide; they’ve used it to cover up the use of more serious banned substances, like steroids.
Bespoke supplement to combat sweating
According to the ITF’s report on the case, a Brazilian biochemist custom-designed the supplement, one of three Bellucci took to try to combat the excessive sweating issue.
(It’s more than a wringing-wet shirt issue; the loss of vitamins and minerals through perspiration is a crusher in terms of stamina for long matches).
“I proved that it was not my fault. I never took any kind of supplement or any other substance that would favor me or that would violate the fair play rules of the sport. You could never imagine that a multivitamin made by a drug store could suffer cross-contamination in minimal doses. I have always been careful and respected the rules of the sport,” Bellucci said in the statement, per Esportes Mais
“It was precisely at a time when I was recovering from injuries and making a major transition in my career, from moving to Florida, setting up a training base there to reach my maximum potential on the circuit in the next few years.”
Per the ITF’s report, Bellucci personally brought the remaining supplement capsules from one of the prescriptions, along with another supplement he bought on Amazon, to a lab in Los Angeles for testing.
(Kids, don’t buy your supplements on Amazon if you’re subject to dope testing.)
He also submitted hair samples in order to produce a negative test for steroids.
Interestingly, Bellucci had not disclosed any of the supplements on the standard form players fill out. Players are supposed to lost every single thing they ingest on those forms.
Bellucci told the ITF he mistakenly thought that “his daily consumption of vitamin pills” did not need to be on the form. (Kids, have you learned NOTHING from the Sharapova case?)
Nonetheless, the ITF believed that he’d taken the supplements that week in Bastad.
Interestingly, the biochemist in question had been involved in a similar case in 2016 involving another athlete (the details are redacted in the ITF’s report) who tested positive for the same reason.
In a letter received by the ITF dated Oct. 11, Bellucci waived “any right to challenge any part of the sample collection procedure or laboratory analysis in relation to sample number 3089061, instead accepted that the laboratory had accurately detected HCTZ and its metabolite in his sample, and therefore accepted that he had committed an anti-doping rule violation.”
But … Bellucci did not accept a “voluntary provisional suspension” when he first received the news, in order to leave the options open in terms of appealing it.
In the wake of other so-called “silent bans” where the player flat-out had to lie about an injury to explain their lengthy absences, the ITF changed its procedure.
It now announces such voluntary provisional suspensions (or mandatory suspensions) before the case itself is resolved.
That change was made for cases arising after Sept. 1, 2016.
At the time, the ITF gave this rationale:
“The reputation of the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme and, consequently, of tennis, have been damaged by accusations that players have been allowed to serve bans without those bans being made public (so-called ‘silent bans’). This rule change will prevent any further similar accusations.”
Given that many players would opt to retain the right to fight a doping suspension in court, and therefore not accept a “voluntary provisional suspension”, the Bellucci case reveals that the announced change remains more cosmetic than practical.
Then again, there are so few positive tests announced that it only occasionally comes into play.
When Bellucci announced on his website that he was pulling out of Shenzhen, Beijing and Shanghai, he cited his ongoing Achilles tendon injury. But he had travelled to Asia and was practicing there. And he didn’t play the rest of the season.
The Brazilian’s ranking has dropped considerably in the last couple of years. He could well have finished out the season on the South American clay-court Challenger swing, near home. That’s his favorite surface. And that would have given him a shot at raising his ranking to ensure he could make the Australian Open main draw by direct entry.
Small concentration, big consequences
The concentration of hydrochlorothiazide found, 30 ng/ml, is quite small.
As a comparison, it’s almost exactly the same concentration found in the fourth test administered to American Varvara Lepchenko that was found to contain meldonium, the same substance that cost Sharapova 15 months of her career.
Lepchenko did serve a sort of “silent ban” through the first few months of 2016. She wouldn’t discuss it when the news leaked out, either. (The ITF only announced the positive test in Sept. 2016).
The American tested positive for meldonium in a concentration of 12,630 ng/ml the first time, on Jan. 7. By the fourth time she was tested, the sample found was so small (29 ng/ml) that the ITF accepted Lepchenko’s claim that she had stopped taking it before it officially became a banned substance on Jan. 1, 2016.
Bellucci’s doubles partner not affected
Bellucci forfeits a total of €8,575 in prize money from Basted, along with 90 doubles ranking points. His doubles partner, countryman Andre Sa, did not have his points and prize-money forfeited, because the ITF considered that Sa would be able to show that “he was not implicated in Mr Bellucci’s ADRV and that their results in the doubles competition were not likely to have been affected by the ADRV.”
Bellucci will return for the South American clay-court swing, beginning with the Quito Open in Ecuador in early February.
(ADRV – Anti-Doping Rules Violation)
The full decision is here, if you want to read it.