Sunday, March 24, 2013


The extraordinary hullabaloo surrounding the sanctions handed down to Lance Armstrong, a man who never once in his career failed a drugs test, brings to mind the question of doping in tennis.  Yannick Noah and James Blake appear to be the only people in the game willing to concede what is painfully obvious to anyone following what passes as anti-doping controls in tennis: that we're all being duped.

One can criticize the manner in which Noah has focused his energies and commentary on Spanish tennis players, which can only be characterized as groundless and absent of any intelligence or evidence.  Or we can look to Blake's more blanket and simultaneously tempered approach, which casts doubt on the entire field.  But both men essentially allude to the absurdity of the existing doping controls in tennis, and how brilliantly inept it has proven itself to be in doing anything coming close to controlling doping in the game.

First and foremost, tests for doping need to catch those players not only who may have some controlled/banned substances in their system, but more importantly those players who have done so with the intent to gain a competitive advantage.  A brief look at the history of players caught up in the ridiculous web of drugs testing in tennis reveals that a very blunt instrument is being wielded, and the players that have suffered the consequences thereof, are clearly not the philosophical target of the controls - assuming of course the intent of the controls is sincere.

That being the case - what is the point of doping controls?  We'll get back to that later, but here is a list and brief analysis of those players caught up in this wicked farce.

Kristina Antoniychuk

Alex Bogomolov, Jr.
Juan Ignacio Chela
Guillermo Cañas
Guillermo Coria
Antony Dupuis
Mariano Hood

The common link among this list of players is that they tested positive for banned substances that the ITF ultimately concluded was the result of medicine prescribed by a doctor for a verified condition, and as such, none of these players could be adjudged to have sought a performance enhancement.

Antoniychuk tested positive for furosemide (banned as a masking agent for PEDs).  It was prescribed by doctors for a condition that was undisclosed, but a brief look at the conditions for which it is typically prescribed does not reveal an obvious treatment for an athlete. Normally that should raise some eyebrows, but incredibly while the ITF accepted her explanation, they still banned her for fourteen (14) months!

Why? After all, if it was a legitimate use, and not for performance enhancement, did it make sense to punish a player so severely for not knowing the contents of a prescribed medicine?  Wouldn't a probationary period make more sense for this kind of offense?

Bogomolov and Dupuis tested positive for salbutamol, which they admitted, and the ITF accepted, were ingested through inhalers to treat asthma. Incredibly, if either had filed for, and received, a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), they wouldn't have been banned or forced to return their earnings. So, here we have two cases of merely a negligence to do some paperwork resulting in a ban and loss of earnings for two players who everyone agrees in no way attempted to gain a performance enhancement and could have legally taken the substance anyway!

Is this the objective of the anti-doping? To punish athletes for failing to file? Doesn't this sort of thing merit a warning?

Canas tested positive for hydrochlorothiazide (another banned masking agent) which was present in a substance provided to him by tournament officials (not prescribed medicine by a doctor) to treat cold symptoms - in other words, the tournament was responsible for putting the substance in the player, and then the ITF and the ATP Tour banned him for taking it. There was no trace of any PED in Canas' sample, and his samples were clean of the masking agent when he was tested at Roland Garros three months later.  But in their brilliance, after a year of wrangling, the ITF reduced his ban from two years to 15 months.  All this does nothing to eliminate the absurdity of banning a player for taking substances provided by the tournament (and thus by association the very authorities that sought to ban him).

Coria, a player nobody would suspect of taking PEDs, tested positive for nandrolone, but his ban was reduced from 2 years to 7 months, after his family independently tested the multivitamin which he showed a doctor had given him (not prescribed, however), that contained the steroid.  Nandrolone was a high profile substance for which many athletes at the time, in many sports, tested positive - and sympathy was in short supply for those who did.  But Coria sued the manufacturer of the multivitamin he took and won an out of court settlement, ostensibly because even if he had done his due diligence to check the ingredients of the multivitamin, he wouldn't have known it contained nandrolone. So why hold him responsible for not taking measures that, even if he had taken them, he wouldn't have known about the presence of a banned substance anyway?

But by far, the most absurd case was that of Mariano Hood, who was banned after testing positive for finasteride, which was prescribed in the treatment of male pattern baldness - so here a guy who is desperately trying to cover the fact that he is balding, is outed by a process that is supposedly looking for PEDs.  The interesting thing is that he had been taking the drug for years, but never tested positive for it...because the drug was only added to the banned list the year he tested positive for it! Now one can argue that it's his responsibility to know what's on the list, but if he were truly seeking a performance enhancement, would he provide evidence that he had been taking it for years - essentially admitting to doping for years?  That's not exactly the defense of someone who is hoping to conceal the taking of a performance enhancing drug! Obviously, Mariano Hood is not the philosophical target of anti-doping controls...or is he?

All this is a kind of madness that only sporting bureaucrats could possibly comprehend. How could players possibly know more than doctors, sometimes doctors designated by the tour, by the way, about the possibility of banned substances in medicine they've ingested? This is clearly another case of the ITF wanting to look tough at the wrong time, at the expense of a player that has a low profile, so the reputation of the sport remains in tact.  Is it really fair for the reputation (and livelihood) of these journeymen to be sacrificed at the altar of this charade?

In all likelihood, the ITF wants to have their cake and eat it too, in that they either 1) don't buy these players' explanations, but don't want to admit that doping is rampant in tennis or 2) they do buy these players' explanations, but want to look tough on doping by banning an unknown player that won't cost the game any money or prestige. And since the doping control authorities and the tour accepted that there was no attempt to enhance performance, isn't the whole affair an enormous waste of time? Because it is artificial performance enhancements that we are trying to identify. Speaking of which, the next list hardly fall in that category, even for the substances found in their tests.

Andre Agassi (methamphetamine)

Lourdes Domínguez Lino (cocaine)
Richard Gasquet (cocaine)
Martina Hingis (cocaine)

Now, I'm not in favor of players taking cocaine or crystal meth, etc., but at the end of the day, what they do in on their own, is none of my business and most importantly, in the case of these particular drugs, doesn't enhance performance, which is supposed to be the point of drugs testing. To prevent players getting "artificial" performance enhancements, and not to legislate personal/private behavior.

Robert Kendrick

The case of Robert Kendrick is a strange one - he was banned after testing positive for methylhexaneamine, a substance banned as a stimulant, readily accessible in many over the counter products, but is considered no more potent than a strong cup of tea.  It is often used as a nasal decongestant because of its properties of increasing blood pressure and blood flow, but Kendrick admitted using it to combat jet lag - in other words, he admitted using it as a stimulant, which is precisely why it is banned!

Now we can argue whether it really ought to be on the banned list, or if it's just there for show, but it is on the list, and even though he admitted using it for the exact reason for which it was banned, and derived a performance enhancement from it (as opposed to other players also suffering from jet lag that didn't use it or other banned stimulants), the ITF decision included a reference to him being able to use the medicine in which the substance was delivered, under a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE).  But why would that have been the case if he was using it as a stimulant, and not as a nasal decongestant? It's almost as if they're giving him, and any other player for that matter, a blue-print for how to game the system.

And then there are the cases of Yannina Wickmayer and Xavier Malisse (who both happen to be Belgian) who were banned, not for testing positive, but for failing to report their whereabouts 3 times in a calendar year - presumably giving them the opportunity to avoid drugs testing on those three days.  But could those three days where they went dark honestly give them an opportunity to avoid positive tests if they had, in fact, doped? I understand this rule is intended to prevent players avoiding testing, but couldn't they simply test them on the next day and see if any drugs were in their system? Then their intent to skirt the test would be more likely or more clear?

At the end of the day, the one glaring example missing from this charade that the ITF expects us to accept, is the case of Wayne Odesnik.  Here is a guy who was caught with enough human growth hormone on his person to turn a mouse into a bull, and what was his penalty? A self imposed hiatus from the game and "cooperation" with the authorities that presumably would assist them in catching others doing the same thing as Odesnik.

To date, no such information has resulted in any such identification.  And he's back on tour again, by the way.  Not getting nearly the results he was getting before he was "banned", before I forget.

So although Noah and Blake don't have any positive specifics of players they know are doping and weren't caught, the evidence of the players who have been "caught" is so weak as to suggest that the one thing the anti-doping program doesn't do is...well, catch dopers.

So isn't this all much ado about nothing?  And isn't that Noah and  Blake's point?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Michael Porter is an economist whose theories altered the way the competitive environment in business is analyzed.  One of his theories is that, at its core, every business must identify one of only two generic strategies to compete in their industry, and align all of their skills and operations with that generic strategy.  Those two generic strategies are either to compete on cost leadership or differentiation, and while the entire skill set of a business pursuing one strategy may (out of necessity) overlap with those of a business pursuing the other strategy, at its core the business must choose.

I've often wondered if this can be applied to any form of competition, including sports, and what then would be the application of these theories to a particular sport like tennis.  Within this framework, I think there are two generic strategies in tennis, and they stem essentially from the two basic ways to win a point:  you either (1) apply pressure or (2) absorb pressure.  The player who applies pressure is more apt to win points through winners and forced errors, while the player who absorbs pressure is more likely to win points through the unforced errors of their opponents.

However, it should not be interpreted that a player who gears his game around one generic strategy or the other cannot develop the skills and employ the tactics of the other - indeed it could be argued that the player who best mixes the two skill sets will be most successful. It should not either be assumed that one strategy is superior to another - just as in business where the ultimate objective is total profits, which can be pursued either through a cost leadership strategy (like Walmart) or a differentiation strategy (like Apple), the same could be argued in tennis.  There are examples of great players who have employed either strategy, even through the use of a different set of tactics (and associated skills).  But at their core, the best players in the the game have had the most success when their games are aligned with the generic strategy they choose to pursue.

The most obvious example of this is the serve and volleyer, who applies enormous pressure on his opponent by serving effectively to set up his volleys which he would hit for winners or to elicit a weak response that is then put away.  There is a laundry list of great serve and volleyers who would fall into this category, but an interesting analysis shows that while the strategic objective is the same, there are a number of ways to achieve it.

Boris Becker and Pete Sampras were serve and volleyers who employed huge sums of power both on the serve and on their ground strokes to essentially beat their opponents into submission. Their games were similar, but whereas Becker's tactics (which was more of a mix of serve and volley and play from the baseline) resulted in 6 majors, Ion Tiriac argued with him for years that he lacked the requisite associated skills  to maximize his potential success through anything other than exclusive serve and volley - a tactic that Becker often eschewed in his career to a fault.  Becker lost a US Open semi-final to Miroslav Mecir dueling from the baseline with a player who's strategic objective was the diametric opposite of Becker's, and after beating Agassi in their 1989 Davis Cup encounter in Germany, went another 6 years and 8 matches before beating him at Wimbledon in 1995 - all the while trying to beat Agassi at his own game.

Sampras on the other hand, was far more adept in the areas of defense to stay with Agassi as needed, until the opportunity presented itself to go on the attack.  By all accounts his movement, footwork, and ground strokes themselves were superior to Becker's, and thus against Agassi and others, who sought to play from the baseline, found it difficult to do either against him.  Interestingly enough, players with a similar generic strategic objective had the most success against Sampras, expressly because they were able to put him under pressure, by virtue of their own (huge) serve and volley game, and essentially neutralize his adept ability to meld the skills required to both defend and attack. Stefan Edberg for his career was 6-8 against Sampras, but it is interesting to note that he won 5 of their first 7 meetings and the decline of his career coincided with the ascendance of Sampras'.  Once Sampras' game was able to effectively absorb or counteract the pressure from Edberg, he proceeded to win 6 of the next 7 matches.

Michael Stich held a 4-3 advantage over Sampras, and Richard Krajicek was 6-4 over the course of his career.  These two statistical anomalies of players with 1 major to their name (not coincidentally Wimbledon titles in 1991 and 1996 respectively) were the result of each player being able to impose their generic strategies over Sampras, and neutralize Sampras' ability to effectively meld the skill sets of both applying and absorbing pressure. In fact, one could argue that while Krajicek and Stich were not nearly the player that Becker was, Becker's record against Sampras was much worse precisely because he failed to stick to a single generic strategy against him, the way his less impressive contemporaries probably felt they had to in order to have any chance to beat him.

It is interesting to note that while Agassi played primarily from the baseline, he was in fact a player who pursued the strategic objective of applying pressure.  Like Jimmy Connors and Jim Courier, Agassi applied his pressure primarily from the baseline - but when faced with a player who had sufficient defensive skills to neutralize his advantage in this area - someone like Sampras - he often found it difficult to impose his strategy.  As a matter of fact, one could argue that while earlier in his career Agassi was prone to try to hit winners from the baseline, as he became stronger, fitter and more technical, he realized that the equilibrium between attack and defense, particularly from the baseline, meant that he was better off forcing errors than hitting outright winners.  But either way, his game was about applying pressure, not absorbing it.

Jimmy Connors is another example of an aggressive baseliner who obviously had the necessary movement and footwork to get in position to ply his trade from his preferred position, but one shouldn't confuse Connors with a player like Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, or Rene Lacoste, who were masters of absorbing pressure.  Connors was adept at coming to net and finishing points off, as part of his strategy to apply pressure to his opponents, and had his most successful seasons (eight years apart in 1974 and 1982) when the mix of those two tactical hemispheres was at its peak. Connors may have made his living at the baseline, but he was never so effective at winning majors as he was when he transitioned from bludgeoning attacking opponents with his ground strokes and passing shots, to picking apart those players who made their living absorbing pressure (like the early incarnations of Ivan Lendl).

Over the course of his career, Connors had the most problems with players who effectively absorbed pressure and elicited errors from him.  The most telling examples of this comes from Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl, both of whom enjoyed lopsided career head to heads against Connors, but initially found it difficult to cope with his aggressive baseline game.

The modern game is more homogeneous in terms of the skill set of players, but generic strategies are essentially split 50/50.  Federer and Djokovic are clear examples of two players who apply pressure to their opponents, but do it in very different ways.  The important thing to note is that while both players apply pressure, what separates them from other players who employ a similar generic strategy is their ability to defend just enough to get in position to apply pressure.  Furthermore, that tipping point differs from player to player within generic strategies, as well as across generic strategies.  Federer, if he has to go beyond 15 strokes in a rally, he is unlikely to win the point, whereas with Djokovic, that number is much higher.

Nadal and Murray would fall in the category of players who generically absorb pressure, but that should not be misinterpreted as saying they're pushers.  To the contrary a pusher could never get the results they have. Nadal's ability to transition from defense to attack is superior to Murray's in that when he makes his transition he has more power and spin at his disposal to finish the point. But they essentially play the game very similarly, and both are happy to stretch points well beyond the 20 stroke level to wait for that opportunity. In fact one could argue that the longer the point goes, the more likely they are to win it.

This brings us to why Djokovic is currently so effective.  Because modern courts are slower, and the balls take more spin and the games of his opponents are more generic than in previous periods in history, Djokovic's superior fire power to both Nadal and Murray put him in a position to finish points in a way that they cannot - however, his level of defense is on par with them and thus he really has both of his bases covered. In fact, his defense is so good, and his points so often so long, that one might be tempted to put him in the category of one who absorbs pressure. But watching him play Federer will dispel this notion.

Fedjoker matches are characterized by both players trying desperately to take control of the point as soon as possible in order to finish it as soon as possible, and it is only the quality of each's defense that stretches the points out.  But generally speaking, it is rare for rallies in their matches to go beyond 20 strokes. And Djokovic's footwork, court positioning and stroke production are now so well synchronized that he rarely requires that much effort to beat anyone else.

I think Michael Porter must be a tennis player.