Murray’s drug fear a sign of the times

“I’d rather be feeling sick for a few more days than risk failing a drugs test.”

In one quick quote in Shanghai, Andy Murray lifted the lid a little, first of all on the seemingly inexplicable losses he has suffered recently at the U.S. Open and Beijing and, secondly, on the prevailing attitude in the ATP locker room towards drugs.

Quite clearly that attitude is laced with fear. Last year, the International Tennis Federation, which runs the tennis drugs program in conjunction with the ATP, conducted 2,126 tests on men and women players at a cost of $1.5 million. To take one case, Roger Federer was tested 17 times, one of them out of competition.

Murray, who slumped to defeat in lethargic fashion to Stan Wawrinka at the U.S. Open and hardly put up a fight against Ivan Ljubicic while losing in straight sets in Beijing, admitted that he had been feeling unwell for some weeks.

“I had a really bad throat and a sore head and had no energy,” he said after beating the Chinese wild card, Bai Yan, 6-2, 6-2 in his first match at the ATP Masters Series tournament in Shanghai. “But I feel much better now.”

Murray, a canny Scot, obviously has no intention of taking the slightest risk as he attempts to get his year back on track and qualify for the ATP World Finals in London next month. And, as incidents in the past have shown, there is a risk, especially in seeking medicines in places like China where Murray has been for more than two weeks.

The ATP gives the players a card listing all the banned substances — which can include regular cold remedies — and, according to an ATP spokesman, most players give it to their own doctor at home so that they can check back with the physician while on the road.

“None of our physios give out medicine of any kind,” said the spokesman, Nicola Arzani. “Only the tournament doctor can do that and, of course, he knows exactly what is permissible.”

But, as Bill Norris, the much respected physio who worked on the ATP tour for forty years, points out, there is a still a grey line.

“A drug that is OK in one country may have been made with a different base in China or elsewhere,” Norris told me. “So Murray was right to be prudent.”

The tough but accepted rule is that a player is solely responsible for what gets into his or her body, even if he has been given a drug by a medical practitioner.

“We had several cases of drug abuse amongst South American players and it was clear, in some cases, that their doctors did not know what they were doing,” says Norris.

Even allowing for the fact that some of those players who ended up being banned — like Mariano Puerto and Guillermo Canas — may or may not have been quite so naïve, there is no question that the severe suspensions handed down struck fear into the players.

I remember Alberto Mancini, who was Argentina’s Davis Cup captain at the time, complaining that he could not get one of his injured players to take as much as an aspirin. “He is scared to death of getting tested positive now,” said Mancini.

While respecting the need to have strict rules, there are those who feel WADA’s unbending regulations go too far. Having players refuse necessary treatment because they are afraid of career-threatening consequences cannot be right.

Nor it is reasonable to demand that players give the authorities one hour of each day of their lives during which they can be tested — in or out of competition. Tennis players are constantly travelling and have no clue where they will be on a given day. Yes, Murray or Federer knew well in advance that they would be in Shanghai this week. But for how long? If one of them lost early, they would have been gone by Tuesday or Wednesday. If they make the final, they will be there on Sunday.

The chances of contracting some serious disease amongst a bunch of athletes who fly long distances on a constant basis and live cheek-by-jowl in crowded locker rooms is considerable. Federer caught a relatively light dose of mononucleosis two years ago and recovered. Sadly, the fine Croatian player, Mario Ancic does not seem to have been so lucky. His mono has returned three times and it may have finished his career. Andy Roddick has suffered from a debilitating virus this year and now Murray has had his form affected, too.

These players must get help when they need it. The fear factor is a good deterrent up to a point but the authorities need to balance their zealous search for the cheats with an understanding of what it’s like to live on the road, with different doctors and pharmacists to deal with every week. It takes more than an apple a day to keep these guys healthy.