Spanish tennis’ long doping history

Testosterone use dates back to a Davis Cup tie in 1959 and there have been eleven doping cases in Spanish tennis since 1996, one involving a minor.

Spanish tennis’ long doping history

Testosterone use dates back to a Davis Cup tie in 1959 and there have been eleven doping cases in Spanish tennis since 1996, one involving a minor.

Spain’s Andres Gimeno (right), the 1972 Roland Garros champion. (Source: wiki)

Spain’s Andres Gimeno, the 1972 Roland Garros champion. (Source: wiki)

On 10th July 1959, a weary, defeated Andres Gimeno trudged off centre court at the Barcelona Royal Tennis Club. The Spanish player had just wilted in the scorching heat during a five-set Davis Cup doubles match against Great Britain. Gimeno’s physical collapse in the final set, described by the press as a “cessation of effort”, led to his doubles team’s downfall.

Twenty-four hours later, during his singles tie, Gimeno miraculously recovered and wore down Britain’s Billy Knight with his “big forehand, precise volleying and astute lobbing”. The Daily Mail reported that Gimeno, known as the Barcelona Matador, was still “much the fitter man at the end” despite the 45-degree heat.

Spanish legend and 1966 Wimbledon champion Manolo Santana went on to seal victory in the tie for Spain.

But how did Gimeno, Roland Garros’ oldest ever champion, rise from the dead?

In the aftermath of the tie, Dr. Vidal Saval, physician to the Barcelona Royal Tennis Club, now home to the annual ATP 500 clay event and many of Spain’s top players, candidly told The Daily Sketch that he had put Gimeno, just 20 at the time, on “an intensive regime of injections of testosterone” to recover.

Gimeno’s story was splashed across the British press with headlines reading: “Gemino (sic) was drugged”; “Davis Cup Sensation: ‘Pep’ jabs helped Spain win”; “Don’t monkey around with testosterone for tennis”.

The then-president of the Royal Spanish Tennis Federation (RFET), the Marques of Cabanes, confirmed that the injections had been given. The chairman of the Lawn Tennis Association Mr. W. J. Greener described the use of hormone injections as “rather unfair” despite testosterone injections not being against the rules at the time.

And so began Spanish tennis’ chequered doping history.

Andres Gimeno (far left) pictured during a tribute tournament to Gimeno in 2011 involving the likes of Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer. (Source: Facebook)

Some forty years later, in 1996, Spain’s Ignacio Truyol became the first ever tennis player to test positive for anabolic steroids. Truyol, who was Fernando Verdasco’s coach up until last year, tested positive for nandrolone and the stimulant pemoline at a tournament in Belgium. He claimed he had been given the drugs by a Spanish endocrinologist, Carlos R. Jimenez, to treat a chronic back injury – he was banned for two years.

Truyol’s case broke when drug testing in sport was as blunt as a butter knife, and drug testing in tennis was as blunt as its wooden handle. In fact, the sport’s anti-doping program has only become adequate in the last few years. As recently as 2012 the International Tennis Federation (ITF) were annually only performing 38 out-of-competition tests for the game-changing blood booster EPO and just 8 confirmatory tests for synthetic testosterone.

Yet Spanish tennis has still managed to have plentiful run-ins with anti-doping protocols. Further plumes of smoke have aroused more suspicion of unfair competition.

There have been 11 doping cases involving Spanish players since 1996.

Four of those banned were ranked inside the top 100 during their careers. Nuria Llagostera Vives, from Mallorca, reached number 35 in the world rankings while Juan Viloca crept inside the top 50 before becoming the coach of two-time grand slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova. Only Italy, Brazil and Argentina, whose elite players often base themselves out of Spain, have had comparable problems.

Three of these Spanish players were defended at their disciplinary hearings by the sports lawyer Fermin Morales’ law firm. Morales later became the president of the Spanish Tennis Federation’s anti-doping commission, a position he has held for the last decade.

Miami Masters 2018: Fernando Verdasco and his coach at the time Ignacio Truyol, who was the first tennis player to test positive for steroids, alongside world number one Novak Djokovic. (Source: Instagram/Nachotruyol)

Supposition that doping in Spanish tennis went even higher in the rankings came when the doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes was arrested in Madrid in 2006. Fuentes organised blood transfusions for world class Spanish and international athletes and trafficked doping substances as part of a nationwide doping network.

In court, Fuentes testified, under oath, that he had worked with tennis players.

The Guardia Civil, Spain’s military police, seized 225 blood bags belonging to Fuentes’ athletes that were meant to be reinfused as part of an illegal blood transfusion.

The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) have matched DNA from some of the bags to their corresponding owners but WADA announced in 2018 it will not be revealing the names of the athletes due to the expiration of the statute of limitations. WADA says it received no support from either the Spanish government or its sports authorities during its efforts to name those involved.

Feliciano Lopez, a 3-time Wimbledon quarter finalist, has been vocal about the damage the scandal has caused to clean athletes in Spain. He believes the covering up of these athletes’ activities has unfairly sullied the names of other athletes in Spain.

Lopez said “It is not my fault if the Operacion Puerto was a scandal in the sports world. Alejandro Blanco, President of the Spanish Olympic Committee, has publicly admitted it’s not the fault of the players if the Spanish justice system has failed to solve the problem of doping in our country, from that moment all of us Spanish athletes are convicted.”

And Lopez is right, naming Fuentes’ clients could irreversibly damage the country’s sporting reputation – the doctor had been working with Spanish athletes for decades, his client list could be endless – but by the authorities remaining silent, clean athletes across Spain are unfairly tarnished with the same brush.

The ATP’s own lack of transparency has made the situation no better for tennis players.

Pedro Munoz, the former Spanish Tennis Federation president, said in an interview in Madrid that “many times” tennis authorities have kept cases secret. He said he travelled with a Spanish player, whom he declined to identify, to an ATP hearing in Paris after the athlete tested positive for a drug he took to help heal a shoulder injury in the late 1990s. The men’s tour fined the player the equivalent of about 5,000 euros and never made the test result public.

The ATP’s 2004 rule book states that if a player tests positive the case would not be announced publicly until a hearing had found the athlete guilty. If cleared, the public never found out.

This opacity both from Spain and the ATP leave the likes of Lopez fully justified to lament the efforts of the authorities to protect clean athletes. How many skeletons are there hiding in the closet?

The Spanish tennis landscape itself is not without reprieve.

Dr. Luis Garcia Del Moral, Lance Armstrong’s former doctor on the US Postal cycling team, was employed at the prestigious TennisVal Academy in Valencia for over ten years. The academy was home to the likes of David Ferrer and Dinara Safina. In 2006, Safina visited Del Moral accompanied by Miguel Maeso, physical trainer to 2003 Roland Garros champion Juan Carlos Ferrero as well as David Ferrer. According to Las Provincias, Maeso and Del Moral concocted a recovery programme for Safina.

Del Moral was a doctor who performed blood transfusions and administered EPO, testosterone, steroids and human growth hormone. Cyclist Christian Vande Velde described him as the type of doctor who “would run into the room and you would quickly find a needle in your arm.

He was banned from sport in 2012 for anti-doping rule violations committed during his time working with Lance Armstrong and the US Postal cycling team.

Honest Sport has found that Del Moral was even invited to speak at a tennis conference in 2009 organised by the Spanish Tennis Federation (RFET). According to the conference programme, Del Moral was due to present on “Analytical controls, nutrition and ergogenic aidsand was part of a round table with Dr. Angel Ruiz Cotorro, the head doctor of the Spanish Federation who has looked after Rafael Nadal since he was 14 years old.

That is not to suggest Ruiz-Cotorro, an advisor to the RFET anti-doping commission, and Del Moral had a professional or personal relationship, but it does show that before his ban Del Moral was welcome in Spanish tennis circles, after all he was invited by an organising committee whose president was Ruiz-Cotorro.

In 2006, Del Moral was in charge of the wellbeing of a group of promising youngsters in Valencia who were supported by the TennisVal Academy. The team was led by Gala Leon a former player and Spanish Davis Cup Captain. Two of the players Silvia Soler, who reached world no 54, and Beatriz Garcia were also supported by the Spanish Tennis Federation and its medical program.

Whether Del Moral provided illegal assistance to tennis players throughout his entire career remains unknown.

Sara Errani, who reached the 2012 Roland Garros final, worked with Del Moral and went on to serve a doping ban in 2017 after their working relationship had ended.

He was employed by the Royal Spanish Cycling Federation and doped its cyclists for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

You could not hold it against someone if they believed that Del Moral had doped maybe just one meagre tennis player. Not least because doping or suspicious behaviour at tennis academies in Spain is not unheard of.

In Valencia, just a stone’s throw away from TennisVal, Del Moral’s former academy, Francisco Climent, a minor, and the Russian Philipp Aleksanyan,  from the Gandia Tennis club tested positive for the anabolic steroid stanozolol in 2013. Two years later, another player from the club, Ivan Gakhov, served a 12-month doping ban.

The former Dutch player John Van Lottum said he reported the renowned coach Pato Alvarez, both Andy Murray and Grigor Dimitrov’s coach when they trained in Barcelona as teenagers, for injecting a player in the buttock.

“I’ve once actually seen something suspicious, two years ago in Barcelona. I saw along with two other tennis players that the Spanish coach Pato Alvarez put an injection into the buttock of Carlos Cuadrado.” Van Lottum told NRC in 2004. “He was a youth champion of Roland Garros. We have reported that to the ATP then the boy is then never heard from again.”

Alvarez had to bat off “sexual harassment” allegations from a 16 year-old player in the 1980s. Whether these allegations from Van Lottum were ever substantiated or not, Alvarez has always been free to work in tennis.

Spain’s reputation with respect to doping has never fully recovered since Operacion Puerto. The country’s unwillingness to name the athletes involved, set against its poor wider anti-doping landscape, was a contributing factor in its bid to host the 2020 Olympics being turned down by the International Olympic Committee. Like cycling, like athletics, tennis is one of those Olympic sports in Spain that has had its fair share of problems.

Edmund Willison is a journalist and filmmaker focussing on doping, corruption and abuse in sport. You can follow him on Twitter @honestsport_ew or contact him at edmund.willison@honestsport.com.