Simona Halep’s doping ban: Can she beat it? — Must-click women’s tennis links

The IX: Tennis Tuesday with Joey Dillon, Sept. 19, 2023

Howdy, y’all and Happy Tennis Tuesday! Undeniably, the biggest news of the week came just after last week’s Tennis Tuesday was published. Former World No. 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion Simona Halep was banned for four years from the International Tennis Integrity Agency due to doping violations.

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Originally, she was provisionally suspended for testing positive for Roxadustat after her opening round loss at the 2022 US Open. However, a second charge when her athlete biological passport (ABP) — a system to track an athlete’s blood levels over a period of time that can be retested with newer technology — showed that there were quite some irregularities. Banned until October 6, 2026, Halep will fight with an appeal through the Court of Arbitration for Sport:

The ITIA released their 126-page report and to be quite frank, it really doesn’t look good for Halep and their team. While a lot of the media focuses around Roxadustat, I personally find the ABP charge a lot more damning — as does the ITIA.

First, let’s discuss the Roxadustat charge. Roxadustat is a drug that is quite often used to help treat people struggling with anemia. It helps increase the production of red blood cells, thus increasing the amount of oxygen which leads to greater endurance. Halep challenged the positive test, claiming that a collagen powder recommended from her coach Patrick Mouratoglou’s team was contaminated. The ITIA confirmed that contamination was likely the cause of her specific August 29, 2022 sample, however, it wasn’t enough to explain the levels of Roxadustat in Halep’s system. To produce the levels found in Halep’s test, an expert said she would have needed to take 900-5,000 times the recommended dosage of the supplement, Keto MCT.

Now, the bigger charge is about Halep’s ABP, which was sanctioned in May. Halep had 56 blood samples in her ABP, but only 51 were considered valid by the ITIA’s panel. Certain samples were flagged for irregularities — all in 2022. Now, there weren’t any blood samples taken from April 28 to August 5, so the ITIA’s opinion on Halep’s blood doping is just that — opinion. However, looking at her tests in March compared to those in late August and September, the irregularities allege that Halep was blood doping of some kind in order to peak for both Wimbledon and the US Open.

To quote Whoopi Goldberg, Halep is in danger, girl. The ITIA wanted to give her a six-year sentence with their findings, but a panel declined that option. I think if Halep only had the Roxadustat charge from the one sample, she would have only had a two-year ban because at the end of the day, the athlete is in charge of what they are putting in their body. Athletes sign off annually on anti-doping training, legally binding that what shows up in their test is on them — not their coach, team, agent, etc. I believe Halep & co. ultimately know that she was never going to have the provisional suspension lifted automatically, but they still threw whatever theory at the wall to see what would stick to help her case.

The ABP/blood doping charge is what might nail the coffin of Halep’s career, though. Right now, it’s not looking good, but what does help the Romanian is that ultimately, the ITIA’s opinion is all hypothetical. They are just assuming she was blood doping, though the evidence and levels seem to be strong enough in their favor. What Halep can argue is that the ITIA’s opinion was skewed when the anonymous flagging suspicious data essentially identified her because of the Roxadustat charge she had just received. Though the doping system does as well as it can to catch cheaters, it’s certainly not perfect.

I definitely also encourage you to check out Halep’s exclusive interview with Front Office Sports. She and attorney Howard Jacobs break down a lot of arguments against the ITIA’s findings. However, something the interview mentions that is nowhere in the ITIA’s report is a thyroid condition Halep apparently has where Roxadustat would do more harm than any good for her body. If her condition was that serious, shouldn’t that have been mentioned in the report at least once?

I really want to wish that this wasn’t deliberate because she’s historically been a champion for clean sport, but the report… just doesn’t look good. I’m also very curious how this will impact Patrick Mouratoglou as a coach and contributor to the sport since this all started when they joined forces. Coco Gauff, Holger Rune and Stefanos Tsitsipas have all slowly separated themselves from him in some capacity, while the French coach is doing a media circuit to discuss Gauff and in my opinion, throw out distractions from the Halep case.

Ultimately, I don’t see Halep winning this case and my gut says that she won’t even get a reduced sentence. If she can prove any type of bias or specifically show science in her favor, then possibly we can see her in 2025 or maybe 2024 at the earliest. Right now, Simona will be 35 when she’s eligible to return to the courts and a four-year break could be too costly. Selfishly, you also have to wonder how this would impact her future Hall of Fame chances, as well as where she stands in the list of all-time WTA Legends.

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This Week in Women’s Tennis

The Fall Swing is here and the WTA compiled everything you need to know, but with the tour back in China, it opens up conversations about their boycott in support of Peng Shuai.

The ITF and ITA announced a partnership to give top-ranked female collegiate players spots in various professional tournaments. Though the WTA is listed as part of the agreement, there are no openings in WTA events — or a statement from the tour — and my thought is they’re only listed because WTA ranking points are offered.

Barbora Krejcikova won her second singles title of the year at the Cymbiotika San Diego Open, outlasting Sofia Kenin in the final. She also took home the doubles title with Katerina Siniakova, where they defeated Danielle Collins and a retiring Coco Vandeweghe in the championship. Also, be sure to check out WTA Insider’s Champions Corner with Krejcikova.

At the Kinoshita Group Japan Open Tennis Championship, Ashlyn Krueger won her first WTA 250 title without losing a set, upsetting Zhu Lin in the championship match. Anna-Lena Friedsam and Nadiia Kichenok defeated Anna Kalinskaya and Yulia Putintseva to win the doubles title.

Marina Bassols Ribera captured her the biggest title of her career by defeating Zeynep Sonmez in the finals of the Zavarovalnica Sava Ljubljana. Amina Anshba and Quinn Gleason both claimed their maiden WTA 125 title, downing Freya Christie and Yuliana Lizarazo.

Astra Sharma found herself back in the winners circle, knocking out Sara Errani to take the WTA 125 Tiriac Foundation Trophy in Bucharest. In doubles, Angelica Moratelli and Camilla Rosatello won their biggest title by defeating Valentini Grammatikopoulou and Anna Siskova in the championship.

Katerina Siniakova overtook the Doubles No. 1 ranking again, while Sofia Kenin nearly halved her ranking after her San Diego run.

Russell Cleeve was named Chief Consumer & Digital Officer at WTA Ventures and is in charge of “developing the WTA’s digital capabilities and crafting a commercial strategy to broaden the WTA audience, enhance fan engagement and drive revenue growth.”

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Written by Joey Dillon