Simona Halep’s suspension is the latest example of tennis’ unsatisfying anti-doping efforts

What’s the point in having a rigorous anti-doping program anyway, if so many people simply refuse to accept the result?

I know Simona. I don’t think she ever consciously doped. This suspension is for an innocent person.

World No. 26 Sorana Cirstea, in a widely disseminated interview with Sport Romania, on the four-year suspension issued to her friend and compatriot, Simona Halep


Halep is one of the most beloved WTA stars of the past decade. It may be because, at 5’6″, the 31-year-old former No. 1 used guile, guts and a great set of wheels to outgun more imposing rivals. It may owe to the way Halep bounced back from heartbreaking losses in three Grand Slam finals before winning her next two.


Whatever the reasons, Halep became a player who seemed to enjoy home-court advantage on any court. Wherever she appeared, so did the chant heard ‘round the world: “Si-mo-na, Si-mo-na, Si-mo-na. . .”


All that makes it easier to understand the position taken by Cirstea, along with many others (including fellow players). But the way this unsavory saga is playing out may lead you to wonder, “What’s the point in having a rigorous anti-doping program anyway, if so many people simply refuse to accept the result?”


According to the Guardian newspaper, the International Tennis Integrity Agency’s investigation into Halep’s violations of doping rules generated some 8,000 pages of evidence. The final ruling ran to 126 pages. Some who rallied to Halep’s cause complained that the process took too long, yet even the most literal-minded fan surely sees the irony in the assertion that an investigation was somehow “too thorough.”


This is not strictly a Simona Halep issue. This is a recurring theme when doping causes an athlete’s fall from grace. The shock and disappointment can be overwhelming, and that can trigger bouts of magical thinking. Criticism of the process leading to a suspension also may appear valid due to an appeal process that very often results in a reduced sentence. This can make the adjudication of doping cases look less like a way to punish cheaters than a traffic-court negotiation to have a speeding ticket reduced to a lesser offense.


Halep has already said she is appealing the sentence to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.


This is not the first time that a high profile suspension has played out in the way this one is unfolding. Keep in mind that in the entire history of anti-doping, precious few athletes have copped to their transgression and quietly accepted their punishment. When Serbia’s Viktor Troicki failed to provide a blood test at the Monte Carlo Masters 1000 in 2013, he incurred an 18-month suspension (reduced on appeal to 12 months). Troicki protested his innocence, complaining that he was being “treated like a criminal.” His Davis Cup teammate Novak Djokovic declared Troicki’s unequivocal innocence, and denounced the anti-doping procedures as “ridiculous.” But no one disputed that Troicki did not produce the required test.


In a case that has interesting similarities to Halep’s, in 2016 Maria Sharapova tested positive for using a banned substance, meldonium. She said she did not know that the drug, which she allegedly used due to a family history of heart troubles, had been put on the forbidden list. But much like Halep, Sharapova and/or her team were well aware of the requirement to report the use of any medication or supplement to doping control officers. Neither player could explain why she did not.


As always, the denial of guilt opens a Pandora’s box and questions come flying out. This generates a lot of distracting smoke and white noise, diverting our attention from the true cost of cheating—the credibility of the sport. Serena Williams put her finger on the toll when she posted on X, formerly Twitter, “8 is a better number.”


The cryptic reference was clear. Halep defeated Williams, a seven-time Wimbledon champion, in the final of the tournament in 2019. Cirstea lashed back on behalf of Halep, characterizing Williams as “arrogant,” which didn’t really have much to do with the judgment against Halep but certainly distracted many from her troubles.

Serena, queen of shade? 🍵

Not long after Simona Halep was hit with a four-year doping ban Tuesday, @serenawilliams posted this:

“8 is a better number.”

Williams owns seven Wimbledon singles titles and was defeated by Halep in the 2019 final at SW19…

— TENNIS (@Tennis) September 12, 2023

If anything positive has come of all this, it may be that the adaptation in 2013 of the “biological passport” as a way for doping authorities to monitor unusual metabolic activity is an excellent tool. It appears to have played a major role in determining that Halep had far too much of the banned substance, roxadustat, in her body to support the claim that it entered her system through the “contaminated” supplement she was taking but, bafflingly, not reporting.

Not that rigorous science and evidence, even 8,000 pages worth, makes much of a difference to some. The anti-doping effort once again has been enveloped in a miasma of denials, rationalizations, and equivocations. Somehow, we have ended up where investigations usually begin, not where they end.

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