When Roger Federer this week called for the introduction of biological passports in tennis, the man with the most polished image in the sport hit a clean winner. As the most popular player in the world, an influential member of the ATP players' council, the owner of 17 grand slam titles and a magnet for high-level endorsements that lift his annual earnings beyond $50m (£32.2m) a year Federer is listened to at all levels of the game.
"A blood passport will be necessary," he said, "as some substances can't be discovered right now but might in the future, and that risk of discovery can chase cheaters away. But there also should be more blood tests and out-of-competition controls in tennis. I didn't get tested on blood after the Australian Open and I told the responsible people over there that it was a big surprise for me."
There are two problems tracking athletes in a sport that moves around the world so quickly and so far: access and money. The International Tennis Federation did only 21 out-of-competition blood tests in 2011 out of a total of 131, pleading cost, although the testers were more active last year, possibly in response to the ever-spreading controversy in cycling. (Tennis still spends only $1.3m a year on drugs testing, about a third of cycling's commitment.)
However, the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, David Howman, hinted this week that a biological passport – a history of an athletes levels of substances over a period of time – could be introduced in tennis soon. "I think they're going to do it this year," he told thetennisspace.com, "and we've encouraged them to get on with it. I think that would be a really good stake in the sand, if you like, to show that they're keeping up."
The current system, clearly, is window-dressing. In the 27 years in which there have been regular tests for recreational as well as performance-enhancing substances in tennis, only a slew of minor fish have been caught, which begs the obvious question: why bother?
Innuendo rather than hard evidence is the cloud hanging over tennis, as in most sport. James Blake stirred the pot at the US Open last year when he reckoned the problem was widespread. But where was the proof? The retired Belgian pro Christophe Rochus has been similarly reckless in his allegations.
Random testing can appear erratic. When Rafael Nadal revealed during his comeback in Chile last week that he had been blood-tested three times and taken six urine tests in the seven months he had been away from the sport, eyebrows arched. Why were the testers going after a player who was not even competing — especially since, in that same period, the world No1 Novak Djokovic had not had a single blood test?. Andy Murray said at the Australian Open he had been tested "six or seven times" in 12 months.
"We do a fair amount of drug testing," Murray said. "But a lot of it has been urine, not so many blood tests. I think it's important to make sure we have all of those bases covered."
Richard Ings, who was in charge of the ATP's anti-doping programme for five years and later took over the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, delivered a short, telling critique a couple of months ago. "The future of the fight against doping in sport is anti-doping being taken over by strong government agencies backed by laws and compulsive powers," he told ESPN. "Testing will be a part of that process but not the focus of that process."
How prescient. Earlier this month the Australian Crime Commission released a report – with no names – that said it had nailed criminal connections to drugs in sport. No early-morning drugs test would get that result.
If the supposition that criminals are the source of the drugs is correct – and it seems a convincing link – it would make sense for government agencies with powers of arrest to give those miscreants grief rather than ITF testers waking Andy Murray up at 7am after he has just got off a plane from Australia only to have his innocence confirmed yet again.
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