One moment of inattention after an exemplary 20-year professional tennis career, and Abigail Spears’s life has been forever changed.
On Feb. 5, the International Tennis Federation announced the 38-year-old American would serve a 22-month suspension, after she tested positive for two banned substances at the 2019 US Open.
“It was definitely shocking, because I think everything I take is fine. I thought it was a mistake. I was like, ‘There’s no way,’ ” Spears told tennis.life in an interview.
Upon advice from her attorney, Spears decided not to fight the length of the suspension in the higher tribunals. The cost of doing so was unlikely to shorten it in any significant way.
Spears reached No. 66 in singles earlier in her career. But she found greater success as a doubles player. Spears has earned 21 titles, reached the top 10 in the rankings and won the 2017 Australian Open mixed doubles title with Juan Sebastian Cabal of Colombia.
The San Diego native also reached US Open mixed doubles finals in 2013 and 2014 with Santiago Gonzalez of Mexico.
Contstant attention to detail – until …
Spears has had dozens of doping tests during her career, all of which were negative. The ITF lists six in 2018, and between 4-6 in 2017. Those numbers don’t include any tests administered by the U.S. anti-doping organization.
She has the anti-doping application on her phone. She said she has always done things the right way – over-cautious to a fault with it, as she is with most things in her life. She said she had been meticulous in checking and double-checking every supplement and medication she took.
But in 2019, Spears had sought help from a Florida-based homeopath recommended by a fellow player for issues unrelated to tennis – issues with food intolerances and with overall health, as she looked to life beyond tennis in the late stages of her career.
She was told, according to the International Tennis Federation’s written decision, that the prescribed supplements were all natural.
“I think (the ITF) saw through the briefing, all the information, all the test results (the homeopath) had me take, all the interaction, they surmised that I wasn’t intending to dope,” Spears said. “I’d come in for issues for my inflammation. I had chronic arthritis in my Achilles, I knew I struggled with food intolerance. … And every time before I’d seen a homeopath, and even doctors, I’d always checked. We know, as athletes, that it’s our responsibility.”
The homeopath prescribed several supplements.
“I had to go back and actually check the supplements that were ordered from the doctor to see what it was. I think I just lost focus. I did check, and the only thing I can think of is that I started the process I usually do, checking all the ingredients.
“And I somehow missed the big one.”
DHEA on the prohibited list
The supplement in question contained DHEA, which is clearly listed four separate times on the list of banned substances.
DHEA, or dehydroepiandrosterone, is a hormone naturally produced by the body. But that natural production decreases as early as age 30. The supplement has the potential to increase bone density and help correct hormonal imbalances and adrenal insufficiencies.
The pharmaceutical supplement that replaces it is popular, although numerous studies show it doesn’t much affect muscle size or strength. But it is on the World Anti-Doping Organization’s prohibited list.
The fact that it partially converts into testosterone meant that the same supplement was accepted as being responsible for both positive findings.
“Solely for therapeutic reasons related to general well-being”
According to the decision document, the ITF accepted “that the Player did not take the Supplement to enhance her sports performance or for any reason related to her occupation as a professional tennis player. Instead the Player took the Supplement solely for therapeutic reasons relating to her general well-being, independent of her sports career.”
After the extensive testing, Spears left for Europe and the clay-court swing, where by law she couldn’t have the supplements mailed to her.
“(The ITF) said I should have checked. And yes, I should have. In my memory, I really felt like I did. So I’m thinking, ‘How the heck did I miss that? I don’t know what happened. Did I start, and then just stop?’ … My main focus was the diet and all the food intolerance. I couldn’t have coffee. For five weeks I had to stay off green vegetables, fruit that I love (apple, berries) beef. No dairy. And no almonds,” she said. “I was so tired – I was going through withdrawals like crazy. I was sleeping so much the first couple of weeks.”
Upon her return to the U.S., she began taking the supplement, finishing up the prescription in question the first week of the US Open.
And then, the life-changing moment. She was notified in early November.
No kissing, no pasta – just human error
There have been multiple defenses put forth by professional tennis players in recent years when appealing the results of a positive doping test.
French player Richard Gasquet’s (successful) claim that he had tested positive for cocaine after kissing a woman in a nightclub was among the most infamous. And then there was Italian player Sara Errani’s (unsuccessful) claim that she had inadvertently ingested her mother’s cancer medication (which contained the banned substance letrozole) after it had been in the food-preparation area in her mother’s kitchen – and somehow accidentally dropped into the tortellini broth.
There have been cases of tainted supplements and of positive tests caused by steroids used in the production of meat in certain South American countries.
Most recently, world No. 1 doubles player Robert Farah had his announced suspension rescinded. Farah was able to create a preponderance of probability that his positive test came after … eating a steak at his mother’s home.
In this case, Spears said, there were no “out-there” defenses.
She owned up to it, and owned it. It was simple human error.
“I’m definitely taking full responsibility for that. I’ve beaten myself up already about it – as you do,” she said. “My whole career – it’s been 20 years – there’s no way I would ever (intentionally) dope. I love it too much.”
A steep price to pay for Spears
The price Spears must pay is wide-ranging.
It’s not just that she cannot return to the court until after the 2021 US Open, when she’ll be 40.
In the interim, she can have almost no involvement at all in the game that she loves.
The rules for players under suspension are fairly clear, if broad.
According to section 10.11 of the International Tennis Federation’s 2020 Anti-Doping Programme, players under suspension “cannot play, coach or otherwise participate in any capacity in any Covered Event; any other Event or Competition or activity authorized, organized or sanctioned by the ITF, the ATP, the WTA, any National Association or member of a National Association, or any Signatory, Signatory’s member organization, or club or member organization of that Signatory’s member organization; any Event or Competition authorized or organized by any professional league or any international or national-level Event or Competition organization; or any elite or national-level sporting activity funded by a governmental agency.”
A “signatory”, in this context, would mean any organization that signs on to enforce the World Anti-Doping Code.
Practically, it’s a little more complicated.
Can she play World Team Tennis, as she has done for years?
No, even though it’s an exhibition event not sanctioned by any of the major tennis organizations.
Can Spears coach collegiately? Yes. But since she can’t attend any ITF tournaments – and most of an assistant coach’s job is to recruit – it’s not realistic.
Could she, for example, set up some women’s coaching clinics around the upcoming BNP Paribas Open and Miami Open?
Not on site, obviously. But not even off-site at a nearby country club.
Can she set up a website to create business as a private coach? Unclear.
Spears cannot get insurance through the USPTA (The United States Professional Tennis Association), because it’s under the arm of the United States Tennis Association, which is a signatory to the WADA code. So she would have to get private insurance.
Giving back, any way possible
Recently, Spears has helped out a friend in coaching a women’s 2.5 USTA recreational league team.
“It was rewarding. I think I can find value in helping people. Tennis is part of me. It’s been my whole life for 30 years. So I hope to return to the tour, or to be able to be a part of this sport. Because it’s a great sport, that can teach you so much,” Spears said.
Above all, she wants to remain active and share all that she has learned. “I want people to be excited about tennis. It would actually be a good thing. I’m just paying my penance, and trying to give back somehow,” she said.
Doping violations are not all created equal. But “degree of fault” and the wide range of prohibited substances and the explanation for a positive finding are distinctions not made by most people.
Even players who have been suspended for three strikes under the “whereabouts” rule, where you have to be in a certain place for an hour each day of your life in case doping control wants to call – no matter how your schedule might change at the last minute – are generally put under the same umbrella.
But the net that dope testing has to cast in order to try to catch offenders has to be wide by definition. And while having a spotless reputation can mitigate the base penalties, a violation is a violation. There’s no way around it.
So Spears’s future career prospects in tennis will always fall under a cloud of suspicion. She will always have to try to explain.
For any parent thinking of having their child coached by Spears, a simple Google search will bring up the word “steroid”. And that will be a tough label to overcome.
“And I can understand that,” Spears said.
Support for Spears “amazing”
On the positive side, Spears said that the support she has received from fellow players, coaches and people around the game has been both humbling and heartwarming. Many fellow players wrote testimonials on her behalf, attesting to her character.
One consequence of the positive test was that her doubles partner at that US Open, Nadiia Kichenok of Ukraine, and her mixed doubles partner Rohan Bopanna also had their results, ranking points and prize money forfeited.
For Kichenok, that meant 130 ranking points and $15,000. For Bopanna, $5,700 and no ranking points, as they are not awarded for mixed doubles.
“The positive outpouring has been amazing. From Nadiia, and Rohan, and the coaches that I talked to. And people in San Diego where I grew up. My World Team Tennis team. I’m really blessed to have that,” she said.
“I think that’s been the most touching thing. I was expecting some people to say they didn’t want to be associated with me – ever again. But there hasn’t been one. I think that speaks well for women’s tennis. And even men’s tennis, the guys who have reached out to me,” she said. “I think people are realizing that it can be more of a community if we try. And I think one thing that’s actually what made everyone so supportive is that they know how easily you can slip up.”
What does the future hold?
If she can, Spears wants to return to the tour and finish on her own terms.
If not, she always knew she would coach once her playing days were over.
Because of the restrictions, she will have to begin at the very elementary level. But after that, she will pursue it.
“This has been humbling in so many ways. I know good things can come from this, and I know I will represent the sport as best I can in what I do,” she said. “I’ve been grateful to be home and see things from a different perspective. And hopefully when my suspension is lifted I can be a better player, but most importantly a better person because of all of this.”