Anti-doping upping the ante

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The ITF’s third-quarter report on its anti-doping efforts reveals a big increase in efforts in the July-through-September quarter.

There were more in-competition urine tests in that period than in the first two quarters combined.

There were three times as many in-competition blood tests as there were from January through June.

Conversely, most of the in-competition biological passport samples were taken the first half of the season. Only 31 of the 143 total for the men were drawn in the third quarter.

In all, 4,899 samples were taken in 2016. The total through three quarters this year already stands at 4,741.

One-year suspension for Dan Evans

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The International Tennis Federation has finally ruled on the length of the suspension for British player Dan Evans.

Evans, 27, will serve a one-year suspension, backdated to April 24, 2017.

A urine sample the British player provided on that date at the Barcelona Open was found to contain cocaine and its metabolite.

Normally, we probably wouldn’t have even heard of this before today, when all of the protocols and the process have been completed. (See the case of Dimitar Kutrovsky below, which took two years to navigate the system)

But Evans got out front of the case, much like Maria Sharapova did when she announced in March, 2016 that she had tested positive for meldonium at the Australian Open that year.

Evans was charged with the anti-doping rule violation on June 16. He read out a statement at a nearby hotel during the Queen’s Club tournament on June 22, a few weeks before Wimbledon, in which he admitted he had failed a doping test.

Evans explains

According to the decision, Evans admitted he ingested a small amount of cocaine on April 20, while out of competition. Evans then put the leftover first in his pocket, and then in a pocket of his laundry bag. He got rid of it the next day.

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The facts of the case worked in Evans’ favour, downgrading a potential four-year suspension to one year.

Except … In that same laundry bag pocket, he stored some medication that he was legally allowed to take. He took those pills for five days. And on the fifth day, he tested positive for cocaine and its metabolite. 

His expert testified, and the ITF’s expert agreed, that the small amount he tested positive for had to have been taken “no more than 24 hours” before his test, “an  amount inconsistent with knowing ingestion and  consistent instead with inadvertent  contamination.”

In other words, Evans didn’t come up with a positive test because he took cocaine April 20. He tested positive because his legal medication had been stored with the leftover cocaine, and thus contaminated. So, in disposing of the remainder of the cocaine and then taking his pills on that April 24 test day, he ended up with a positive test.

The entire decision is here, if you want to read more.

From four years, to two, to one

The anti-doping rules state that a positive test “shall not be considered intentional “if the Substance is not a Specified Substance and the Player can establish that it was Used Out‐of-Competition in a context unrelated to sport performance.”

Evans could not establish that he bore “no Fault or Negligence”, because the evidence was that he was, well, sloppy. But they did allow that he “bore no Significant Fault or Negligence”, which allowed for a discretionary reduction of the two-year initial period by up to 12 months.

The ITF determined that for several reasons, a 12-month reduction was “within the range of reasonable outcomes”. Those reasons included “the time and expenses saved by reaching an agreed outcome rather than having a disputed hearing,” and Evans’s “prompt admission” of his transgression.

He can return on April 24, 2018. 

Evans forfeits more than $120,000 in prize money and 95 ranking points earned in Barcelona and afterwards,  

Kutrovsky gets two years

In another decision, the ITF imposed a two-year suspension on Bulgarian player Dimitar Kutrovsky.

Evans
(ATP file shot)

It’s a case that ran more to form in terms of procedure, as Kutrovsky’s positive test occurred almost exactly two years ago, at the Tiburon Challenger on Sept. 28, 2015.

Kutrovsky’s sample contained D-methamphetamine, which was on the WADA list as a stimulant.

He was charged November 4, and provisionally spended from Nov. 14, 2015. It was his second violation; Kutrovsky had already served a 15-month ban after testing positive for methylhexaneamine back in 2012.

Since Kutrovsky’s suspension is backdated, he has served nearly all of it. Now 30, he will be eligible to return at midnight on Nov. 13, 2017.

At this point, it seems fairly moot. Kutrovsky, who was a standout collegiate player at the University of Texas and also represented Bulgaria in Davis Cup, announced his retirement in Jan. 2016 – less than two months after he was suspended. Long established in Austin, Texas, he is in his second season as an assistant coach with the University of Texas at San Antonio’s men’s program.

“No Significant Fault or Negligence”

It’s interesting in light of the emphasis put by Maria Sharapova and her representatives relative to her own suspension that in both these cases, the ITF wrote in the decision that the player bore “No Significant Fault or Negligence for the violation.” It puts the exact significance of that terminology into context.

The fruit-flavoured tobacco Kutrovsky smoked was contaminated, costing him two years of his career)

In Kutrovsky’s case, he said the positive test came from smoking shisha (a fruit-flavored tobacco) through water pipes (also known as hookah pipes) at two bars in Sofia, Bulgaria on the night of Sept. 20.

He provided evidence to support his contention that the pipes were contaminated with D‐methamphetamine.

Had it been his first offence, Kutrovsky would have gotten a year’s suspension. Because it was his second, that was increased to two years. He also forfeited about $4,500 in prize money and 37 singles ranking points (and five doubles ranking points).

His best singles ranking of No. 293 came earlier in 2015, in May.

That decision is here, if you want to read more.

The Laver Cup: overall, a great debut

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Pretty much everything Roger Federer touches turns to gold.

So why anyone would have any doubt that the first edition of the Laver Cup would be anything but a smash?

It was, on every level, a huge success. Sellout crowds, high-quality tennis, plenty of drama and emotion, a bulletproof format … and Roger and Rafa.

It was a such a perfect storm that even the absence of many top players turned out to be a plus.

Team World (Team America, really) ended up a young squad of millennials – both real and throwback. They decided to have their own private party in front of 14,000 people inside the O2 Arena, and millions more around the world.

“They had the better chants and the better moves, but in the end, Team Europe got it done,” said Laver Cup maestro Roger Federer, who pretty much notices everything and has a uniquely passive-aggressive way of letting you know.

Team World wins the “Team Fun” award

inauguralOutmatched on the court for the most part, Team World won the fun contest

The contrast between Team World and Team Europe couldn’t have been more stark.

Obviously most of the older players were on Team Europe. At times during the weekend you almost got the sense they were exchanging stock tips while Team World recreated The Floor is Lava, this summer’s trending challenge on YouTube.

Just keeping track of Frances Tiafoe’s ever-changing head gear was a trending challenge in itself. Veterans John Isner and Sam Querrey were young again. And green rookie Denis Shapovalov got more corrupted by the day. He may never be the same.

But by the very end, the last 20 minutes of the Roger Federer match, Team World stepped it up – led by an emotional and demonstrative Rafael Nadal.

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Yes, Nadal actually did this in the heat of the Sunday drama. He got a little excited.

Superb staging

The “black” court turned out to play dark gray on television. And it immediately became a visual that will always be associated exclusively with the Laver Cup. 

The ball stood out on the stark backdrop for television viewers. But the blue and red lighting around the court and in the stands prevented it from being too drab.

As well, the stark white of the high-end sponsors also stood out. Don’t think that wasn’t a huge factor as well.

They really did think of everything. One complaint fans often have when watching tennis on television is that the radar gun that measures the serves is hard to find, and often hard to see. In this setup, the numbers were big and bright and always easy to find.

inaugural

The stage where the rest of the teammates cheered was also perfectly set up. The fans could access both teams during changeovers (and even during the matches) for autographs. But if the players wanted to leave the court – especially the losers – they could do so in a straight line towards the locker room. If they didn’t want to deal with the autograph seekers, they didn’t have to.

At the WTA Tour Finals in Singapore and to a large extent at the ATP Tour Finals in London, the fans are often in the dark as the court is lit up. It makes for a bit of an isolated atmosphere although it does hide any empty seats. At the Laver Cup, the stands were lit in a way that fit in perfectly with the court. But it also allowed you to see the fans.

It was pitch-perfect. It almost didn’t even look real.

inaugural

 

Next-Gen graphics, camera angles

A company based in Sydney, Australia and Los Angeles called Girraphic was the mastermind behind the graphics, which were unlike most of what you see all season long.

They were spectacular, especially the ones superimposed on the net. 

Great variety of camera angles

The camera angles were also varied. The baseline cam (affectionately referred to as the “butt cam” because they often close in on the derrière of the player returning serve) has been used before. But rarely this often.

They also had an improved version of the net cam; Bob Feller, the legendary ESPN tennis producer, says, “stay tuned”.

Federer annihilated it at one stage, which was amusing. They had a fish-eye lens at the net that showed the entire court in a new way. There were slow-motion replays of emotional moments and Team Fun routines. It was frantic, but it didn’t feel that way.

Having the coaches on court – and the players playing coaches as well – made for far more interesting cutaways than you’ll see at a regular tournament. There, the endless go-tos are countless shots of Mirka Federer biting her lip, or Jelena Djokovic looking like she might lose her stuff at any moment, get old quickly.

They had to dim the microphones at times, given some of the cussing by Team World. (There were no such issues for Team Europe; captain Bjorn Borg said more during his trophy ceremony speech than he said on court for three days).

Trying too hard

For whatever reason, the braintrust behind the Laver Cup decided that the word “exhibition” was a bad word.

It was clear that a talking point went out to everyone to emphasize that it wasn’t an exhibition. That it didn’t feel like an exhibition. And that it meant something to these guys. They were devoted in their dedication to bringing home the Laver cup to their (country? continent? world section?). And that it meant the world to them.

The thing is, why is the word “exhibition” by definition a bad word?

That’s exactly what this was. Perhaps out of this, a new category somewhere between tournament and exhibition called “special event” may be created.

But they tried so hard. Way too hard.

It’s worth remembering that every single person trying to convince you the Laver Cup “wasn’t an exhibition” had a financial stake in the event. The players received a ton of money up front (and an additional $250,000 each for winning). Federer’s management company, Team 8, for which he is the biggest earner, made a major investment.

Everyone from the chair umpire to the all-star cast of commentators and analysts took home a nice additional paycheque for their participation. It was to the point where the commentators were making excuses for some salty language on Team World’s side with platitudes like “It just absolutely shows how much these guys want to win for Europe and the world.”

Actually, it just showed that they use profanity. As many of us do on a tennis court. As they do during the regular Tour events as well. But they’re not used to being amongst a gaggle of buddies on a tennis court with the microphones on.

Giving the players (and captain) such a pass would only happen in an exhibition. In many ways, the vibe on that level was much as it was for that first, money-heavy season of IPTL. Which was, of course, much derided as “merely an exhibition.”

Format on point

The very nature of the team format was going to make for great competition.

In a standard exhibition, where two top players fly in and out of a city for a one-nighter, they’re playing for themselves and the crowd. 

Regardless of the circumstances, if you play against two of the greatest of all time, you’re going to go all out. And if you are one of the greatest of all time, you didn’t get there by not taking it seriously every time you step on the court.

The place was packed. Everyone had fun. Everyone came out a winner. The fans loved it. Everyone made lots of money.

There is no downside, and little need to preach semantics.

The stated intention to honour the champions of the past in naming the event after Rod Laver, and having Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as captains (neatly dovetailing with the opening of the movie based on their rivalry) put a nice, sincere veneer on what is very much a money-making enterprise.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. 

What’s ahead

The pitch-perfect execution of the inaugural edition is a double-edged sword, in a sense.

Not that this is a bad problem to have.

But it’s going to be awfully hard to duplicate – for so many reasons.

First of all, the event is going to move around. Next year, at the same time, it will take place at the United Center in Chicago.

We know this, because the Laver Cup already had a video message ready from the mayor of the city, and they had a press conference in Chicago just after noon.

The well-heeled crowd in Prague was enthusiastic but extremely civilized. It was only in the waning moments that they began to do those things the diehard fans hate, like cheering for missed first serves.

The crowd in Chicago will be quite different.

The makeup of “Team World” also will be quite different.

What a perfect world it would be if this year’s cast were playing “at home” in Chicago. Their act would play even better. And imagine, conversely, that players such as Nishikori, Murray, Raonic, Anderson and del Potro had been on “Team World” instead of Shapovalov, Kyrgios, Tiafoe, Isner and Sock.

Team Fun probably a one-off

The atmosphere would have been completely different – not nearly as lively. And John McEnroe, as captain, wouldn’t have had nearly the same positive impact. That’s going to be impossible to recreate next year.

What if, next year, Federer and Nadal aren’t blessed with the same health and good form they’ve enjoyed this year, their renaissance year? It’s inarguable that these two are definitely on a year-to-year basis, at this stage.

Without them, it’s not the same event. It’s arguably barely a top-flight event, despite the illustrious resumés of the other player options. In the special-event solar system, star power counts exponentially.

It’s also worth noting here that Djokovic, Murray and Nishikori had not committed to the Laver Cup before their injury woes. Will that change now that they’ve seen it work so amazingly well? It might. It might not.

Federer and Nadal transcend borders. The others, not nearly to the same extent. You know Federer is committed as long as he’s healthy, given his business ties. Countryman Stan Wawrinka likely would do him a solid. But did Nadal just do a one-off favour for his frenemy? We’ll find out.

They should also consider shortening the time between matches. It could run a half hour or more. We realize the need to sell merchandise and adult beverages. But with only one match to talk about, the commentators had a tough time filling. And it’s easy to lose your audience these days.

Collateral effects

Overtly or not, this event has been positioned as a potential alternative format to the century-old Davis Cup competition. That’s partly because of the weekend team format. And it’s also because of the fact that Nadal and Federer played it while skipping representing their country this year.

No doubt there are plenty of secret board meetings over at ITF headquarters. And the drama is made even more real by the fact that the USTA and Tennis Australia – two federations that run Grand Slam tournaments under the ITF umbrella – are involved in a major way. At the very least, the huge money the players were paid just to show up dwarfs the relative pittance they earn for representing their country – with far fewer weeks’ commitment.

But the effects go beyond that, right to the heart of the Tour that made all these players rich and famous.

There were two 250-level ATP Tour events the week of the Laver Cup – Metz and St. Petersburg, Russia. There are two 250-level events in faraway China this week that brush up against the end of the event, Shenzhen and Chengdu.

Stars needed at the 250s

It’s no secret that the 250-level tournaments are struggling to varying degrees. The only way they can make a good go of it is if they can attract a big name to play in the event. That draws the fans; more crucially, it also draws corporate sponsorship.

Metz and St. Petersburg were out of luck. (There was a story reporting that Djokovic had committed to the St. Petersburg tournament before he shut down his season). Tomas Berdych, who would have been the No. 3 seed in Shenzhen, pulled out before the event began. (Why he even entered it, knowing as far back as February when he was doing Laver Cup promotion in Prague with Federer that he’d likely play, is a question for him).

Shapovalov had committed to a big Challenger in Orléans this week. With his subsequent rise, he obviously was a big drawing card. He pulled out late in the game.

Tiafoe also withdrew from Shenzhen. He’s a crowd-pleaser. But it also cost him a chance to earn some ranking points which, at this stage of his career, he still needs. Denis Shapovalov had committed to a big Challenger in France this week. He only played on the Laver Cup’s opening day; he pulled out of Orléans that very day. That’s late in the game.

Tired, jet-lagged top seeds

Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, the No. 1 seeds in Shenzhen and Chengdu, respectively, remain on board so far. But they’ll arrive in Asia very late, after a very long trip. And they’ve both signed on for doubles, as well.

Alexander Zverev is the top seed in Shenzhen this week, and was likely well-paid for it. He’ll arrive pretty drained, and jet-lagged, with little rest of prep time to face Steve Darcis in the second round.

They’ll be jet-lagged – and perhaps even a little hungover from the post-victory celebrations. They won’t have given themselves the best chance to win. That does them a disservice. And it also hurts the tournaments that no doubt paid them handsome appearance fees, as top-10 players, to show up.

And who knows if any other Laver Cup participants might have considered playing?

In the end, the Laver Cup seems to be here to stay. As well it should; it was all kinds of fun and, no doubt, quite profitable for all.

It’s only an exhibition. But it combines the best elements of everything tennis has to offer right now. It needs to stay.

What remains to be worked out is how it best can fit into the overall tennis landscape. Because it needs to fit. The alphabet soup of competing tennis factions all need to figure out a way to make that happen.

(All screenshots used for this post came from the Laver Cup’s livestream)

U.S. wins junior Fed Cup title

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Given the American girls’ successes at the junior Slams this year – Whitney Osuigwe and Claire Liu in the French Open final, Liu and Ann Li in the Wimbledon final and Amanda Animisomova and Coco Gauff in the US Open final, it’s no surprise they ruled the junior Fed Cup in Budapest as well.

Anisimova (who didn’t play because of illness) Osuigwe and Caty McNally won the title, which is restricted to players 16 and under. Anisimova and McNally were finalists a year ago.

The Czech boys won the junior Davis Cup title.

Charleston qualifying full of seasons, Spirit

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You know the entry level in the pros is being taken over by the new generation when you look at the names in the qualifying.

The $15,000 ITF event in Charleston, S.C. had two Peytons – Pesavento, 18 and Stearns, 15.

(Who knew One Tree Hill would have such a lasting legacy? Right?)

There was a Summer and an Autumn (There is another sister, Wynter). There also was a Spirit.

Not to be outdone, a 70-year-old named Gail (Falkenberg) also played – and lost – to a 14-year-old with the relatively prosaic name of … Allie.

Hong Kong Davis Cup appeal successful

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The Hong Kong Davis Cup team decided not to send a team to Islamabad, Pakistan for a tie last April, citing security concerns.

That rogue decision did not sit well with the ITF’s Davis Cup Committee, which said it “takes the security of all players, team personnel, officials and spectators very seriously”. An independent tribunal upheld its decision.

The original sanction had Hong Kong relegated to zonal Group III from Group II.  

But another independent tribunal upheld upheld Hong Kong’s appeal of the sanction. It will be allowed to remain in zonal Group II.

One point short of a golden set

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It doesn’t happen often – not even at the lowest-level Futures events where ability varies widely.

But France’s Daniel Ouvrard fell one point short of a golden match in the qualifying at a $25,000 tournament in France Saturday. 

Ouvrard, a 25-year-old ranked No. 1445, beat unranked Daniel Drake, 27, 6-0, 6-0.

Per Stefano Berlincioni, the only point Drake won came at 5-0, 40-0 for Ouvrard in the first set – on Ouvrard’s lone double-fault of the match.

The match took place in the city of Plaisir (which means “fun”, or “pleasure” in French). Not so much for Drake.

Another comeback: Greta Arn, 38

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It’s perhaps not as notable a comeback as former top-10s Vera Zvonareva or Patty Schnyder. But at 38, after four years away, Greta Arn returned to action in July.

Arn peaked at No. 40 relatively late in her career, at age 32.

Via qualifying, the Hungarian made the main draw in four of her five tournaments. She reached the final last weekend at a $25K ITF event in Balatonboglar, Hungary.

From zero (or infinity, depending on your math), Arn will be close to No. 450 when those ranking points are added in next week.

ITF suspends more small (and retired) fish

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The ITF’s anti-doping program continues to catch the big fish.

Dutch player Jake Mak was provisionally suspended for refusing to provide a blood sample. Mak, 28, is unranked. He was playing his first tournament since 2007.

American Dylan Scott, 24, also unranked, tested positive in July. He chose not to appeal. 

And 37-year-old British wheelchair player Jamie Burdekin refused to be tested as part of the International Registered Testing pool. He got a four-year ban.

The ITF made “repeated attempts to engage Mr. Burdekin with the results management process”. To no avail.

Because he’s retired.

ITF starts “junior education” program

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No doubt it’s pure coincidence that the ITF announced this the week Maria Sharapova returned to Grand Slam action for the first time in 20 months.

The organization has unveiled an online program aimed primarily at junior players to educate them on the ITF’s anti-doping program, as well as the Tennis Integrity Unit.

Through  videos, apps, leaflets, PDF information, video, a quiz and a question-and-answer session, the ITF hopes aims to “protect them on their journey as a tennis player.” 

More modules are on the way.