Depending on your perspective, this is a story about Serena Williams getting upset over an unannounced drug test, or the alternately sinister and clownish nature of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, or Serena Williams being unfairly targeted for drug tests by USADA—or, perhaps, the perils of talking too loudly on your cell phone in airports. Whatever the case, it ends with one looming question that no one seems able or willing to answer: Why is Serena Williams being singled out for frequent drug testing?
This question arises because on June 14, there was, according to sources familiar with the situation, a previously unreported conflict of sorts over an unannounced USADA drug test at Serena Williams’s residence in Florida. A doping control officer showed up to test Williams at 8:30 a.m, when she was not at home. An assistant let the USADA officer into the home, and the officer refused to leave until Williams had been tested. There was a standoff; the test was not administered. Williams called Women’s Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon to discuss the test and what she felt was unfair targeting. Simon put Williams in touch with Travis Tygart, the CEO of USADA.
“I received a text from Serena and called her back and left a message,” Simon told Deadspin. “She shared with me some concerns and questions she had about an out-of-competition drug test.”
Simon said it was “not uncommon” for him to receive calls from athletes that have questions about tests that have been done by country-specific anti-doping organizations or the International Tennis Federation’s program. “I’m not going to say its an everyday occurrence, but it does happen. There’s always a question about the rules, and it’s a constant education process with the athletes. We try to facilitate that,” Simon said. “I spoke with Travis and said, ‘I think you should give her a call.’ And he said he would.”
What precisely happened next between Williams, the WTA, and the USADA is unclear; all three parties are eager to dismiss a USADA agent occupying the property of the world’s most famous tennis player, and eventually coming away not having administered a test, as not news. A statement from USADA communications director Brad Horn said everything was normal and good:
We talk with athletes all the time about clean sport and our programs. We spoke with Serena recently about a recent test mission. Serena has been supportive and engaged with our program, and she is in good standing with our program. As our website indicates, Serena has been tested five times out of competition by USADA so far in 2018, all of which she has passed. Our recent conversation was a good one just like the many other times we have spoken with her.
According to a USADA database, Williams has been tested five times so far in 2018. This total—which doesn’t include the June 14 test mission, which did not come to fruition—is more than twice that of other top American women’s tennis players. According to the USADA database, Sloane Stephens was tested once; Venus Williams was tested twice; Madison Keys was tested once; Coco Vandeweghe was tested twice; Danielle Collins was tested zero times; Alison Riske was tested zero times; Bernarda Pera was tested zero times; and Taylor Townsend was tested zero times. Williams was also tested more than any of the top five American male players.
After I presented this data to Williams’s camp and the USADA, the tenor of their responses changed. A spokeswoman for Williams called the testing “invasive and targeted”:
Over her 23-year career in tennis, Serena Williams has never tested positive for any illegal substance despite being tested significantly more than other professional tennis players, both male and female – in fact, four times more frequently than her peers. She has vocally supported, respected and complied with USADA testing throughout her entire career. While she willingly continues to submit to testing, there is absolutely no reason for this kind of invasive and targeted treatment.
The USADA, meanwhile, sent a statement asserting that it “may target test athletes as USADA deems appropriate”:
Factors considered in allocating tests include available resources, performance information, ranking data, sport and athlete specific analysis, biological and longitudinal analysis, injury information, training periods, the competition calendar, intelligence received concerning possible doping practices and research on doping trends. USADA retains the right to test any athlete at any time and may target test athletes as USADA deems appropriate. Consistent with safeguarding reasonable privacy concerns and serving as an investigative agency, USADA is committed to transparency and therefore regularly posts completed testing numbers on the USADA website. However, given that testing missions result from a wide variety of factors, USADA does not believe that useful conclusions can generally be drawn from comparing the testing frequency for athletes over particular time frames.
There are 12 reasons listed here for why drug tests are allocated the way they are, including “biological analysis,” “intelligence received concerning possible doping practices,” and “athlete specific analysis.” So is there any reason to suspect Serena Williams is doping?
“Absolutely not,” Horn said.
Then is the testing unfair?
“We test only in accordance with international standards and would never conduct testing in an unfair way. We are always available to discuss this with athletes, if they have concerns,” Horn said in a statement.
One concern shared by various parties to this conflict is that information about the botched test may have been leaked in service of some mysterious agenda or other. This is understandable, given the circumstances in which information about Williams’s drug use has leaked before—in 2016, Russian hackers revealed that she, along with other athletes, was taking a drug on the banned substance list (she had a therapeutic use exemption, and was therefore not breaking any rules)—but this story doesn’t stem from a politically motivated smear. It has to do, rather, with a careless executive talking about confidential matters in a public space.
On Thursday, June 14, Deadspin received an intriguing email. (We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through our SecureDrop system for extra security.) The tipster wrote that he was in the San Francisco airport, waiting for a flight to Tampa, Fla., seated two seats away “from some ordinary looking middle aged white guy named Steve.” This Steve, the tipster wrote, was placing several calls about a doping test, including one, the tipster believed, directly to Serena Williams. (“He just left a VM, but he specifically said ‘hey Serena it’s Steve.’”) The tipster expanded on what he heard:
On a prior call, where he was discussing how to handle it with someone, he sounded pretty concerned about a PED test. It sounds like there was a surprise test that was not expected and the team was trying to make issues about it violating protocol. Something to the effect they came through a gate on property (that some assistant was not supposed to open) and once allowed in, would not leave until the test was completed.
I sent the tipster a photo of Steve Simon, and one of Steve Thompson, a lawyer who represents professional athletes in various disputes. The tipster then identified “Steve”—both by his photo and his voice—as Steve Simon. This made sense: The tipster said Simon was sitting in first class on the flight to Tampa Bay, Fla., and WTA headquarters are in St. Petersburg, Fla.
I called Simon, who confirmed that he had been traveling through San Francisco from to Florida on the date in question, and that he had placed calls to both Williams and Tygart, about the USADA test mission from the airport.
The information, once confirmed, seemed eminently newsworthy: The best tennis player of all time was calling the CEO of the WTA to complain about a drug test. But Simon dismissed it, saying many players reach out to him about drug tests. Even if that’s true, what of the complaint itself? Is Williams being targeted?
About a week before the French Open last month, Williams—who returned to tennis at the Fed Cup in February, six months after giving birth to her daughter in September—tweeted that she had been drug tested twice in one week.
(Williams did not specify whether it was USADA and/or the ITF, which test separately but both adhere to the World Anti-Doping Agency standards, that had tested her. The ITF said in an email that it does not discuss individuals or individual tests.)
Simon said the WTA does not interfere in the drug testing process in any way. “We can’t impede upon the integrity of the program,” he said.
According to the USADA website, athletes may be required to provide what’s called “whereabouts information.” This means that every day of the year, athletes give the USADA a 60-minute availability window during which an officer can show up and administer drug tests. If the athlete is not available during that window, or if they fail to file their whereabouts information, it is a whereabouts failure. According to USADA, if an athlete accrues three whereabouts-related failures in a 12-month span, it counts as a doping rule violation. However, the USADA also has the “ability to test athletes without any advance notice in an out-of-competition setting.” If an athlete is not available during these tests, Horn said, there is no whereabouts failure.
The Williams drug test mission on June 14 was the type that is not required to fall within the availability window, which, Horn said, is why there was no whereabouts failure and why the USADA says Williams is in good standing. But the question of why Williams has been so aggressively tested remains.
This is what we know: Serena Williams is tested far more often than comparable players, and doping agents have attempted to test her even more than publicly available records show. Her camp believes this testing to be “invasive and targeted.” The USADA will offer no explanation for it other than asserting—accurately—that they are allowed to send agents to test her wherever and whenever they want, for whatever reason they want. The WTA, the governing body of women’s tennis, says it merely plays some sort of soothing middleman role. Everyone involved seems at pains to emphasize that none of this is news, but simply the ordinary workings of the sport. Perhaps that’s so. If it is, tennis has a serious problem.
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