The International Tennis Federation announced today that doubles specialist Nuria Llagostera Vives has been suspended from the sport for two years after testing positive for d-methamphetamine during the Stanford tournament on July 23. The suspension is backdated to begin on September 8th, the day the ITF imposed a mandatory provisional suspension pending a hearing before its independent tribunal, and therefore Llagostera Vives will be eligible to play again on September 8th, 2015. However, the 33-year-old Llagostera Vives told the tribunal during her defense that such a suspension would effectively end her career.
Llagostera Vives is currently ranked #40 in doubles, and achieved career-high rankings of #5 in doubles in 2009, the year she won the WTA Championships with María José Martínez Sánchez, and #35 in singles in 2005.
The stimulant d-methamphetamine is better known as the widely illegal street drug (crystal) “meth”. The director of a Quebec doping control laboratory, Christiane Ayotte, testified that aside from being rarely prescribed for certain psychological disorders, it is “not something that athletes or normal people… would be exposed to,” and not an ingredient in any supplements she was aware of. Llagostera Vives did not have a therapeutic use exemption for d-methamphetamine. She claimed she must have ingested it accidentally, but could offer only the thinnest possible speculation regarding how this could have happened.
The ITF tribunal’s full decision contains a few more interesting details. Stanford was Llagostera Vives’ first tournament after she had wrist surgery in March. She actually withdrew from Stanford before her first match on Tuesday, July 23, citing her partner Francesca Schiavone’s viral illness. (On Monday, Schiavone had defeated former Stanford student Mallory Burdette in singles, and on Wednesday evening she lost to Agnieszka Radwanska, 6-4 6-3.) Llagostera Vives did not learn until later in the day on Tuesday that she had already been selected for a doping test before she withdrew.
When she arrived to give her urine sample late Tuesday afternoon, Llagostera Vives drew a slash through the section of the doping control form that asked her to list “any prescription/non-prescription medications or supplements” she had taken in the last seven days. The doping control officer told her that if she hadn’t taken anything, she should say so in words. She then wrote “No” in the box. It turned out during the tribunal hearing that she had in fact taken over-the-counter pain relievers and vitamin supplements during this period. She told the tribunal that she “did not think it was that crucial” to report those substances because she had cleared them with her doctor and “did not think [she] would get in trouble because of that.” Under cross-examination by her attorney, she testified that she had never received “official advice” (as he put it) from the WTA or the ITF about how to fill out doping control forms.
The testing laboratory reported on August 21 that Llagostera Vives’ sample had tested positive. After an independent review board found no problems with the test, the ITF imposed a mandatory provisional suspension on September 8, by which time Llagostera Vives had played five more tournaments—Carlsbad, Toronto, Cincinnati, New Haven, and the US Open. Playing with Liezel Huber, she reached the quarterfinals of Cincinnati, the semifinals of New Haven, and the third round of the US Open. The tribunal held its hearing on October 29.
In the hearing, Llagostera Vives did not contest the ITF’s charge that she had committed a doping violation. She argued that the standard two-year suspension would be disproportionate in her case, and should be reduced based on her claim that she ingested the d-methamphetamine accidentally. But the relevant ITF anti-doping rules specify explicitly that in order to qualify for a reduced punishment, Llagostera Vives would have to “establish how the Prohibited Substance entered [her] system” (Articles 10.5.1 and 10.5.2). The ITF tribunal pointed out that athletes must bear the burden of proof on this issue, “otherwise the system of doping control… would be rendered futile.” It also cited a precedent in which the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that this burden on athletes is “proportionate” on its face, because “the possible unfairness to [victims of spiking] is outweighed by unfairness to all athletes if [potentially] untruthful explanations of spiking are too readily accepted.”
Llagostera Vives also argued, with the support of testimony by pharmaceutical chemist Dr. Giuseppe Pieraccini, that the fact that her sample contained a low concentration of d-methamphetamine (and also a trace of a metabolite) proved that she had taken it at least two days before she was tested, and without any intent to enhance her sporting performance. However, Professor Ayotte contested Dr. Pieraccini’s reasoning, and he ended up conceding that his conclusion “involved an element of speculation and supposition on his part”, that “it was not possible to establish from [a single urine test], where, how or how much of the Prohibited Substance had been ingested”, and that while the presence of the metabolite “might suggest that the ingestion had not been as recent as 30 minutes prior to the test… even that was no more than an educated guess” (tribunal’s words).
Finally, Llagostera Vives argued that because she had submitted two negative samples after Stanford and because she didn’t find out about her positive test until she received the ITF’s notice of her impending provisional suspension on August 28, “fairness required” that her results in the five tournaments she played after Stanford should be allowed to stand. Oddly, the ITF accepted that she should retain her results from the two tournaments at which she was tested, Toronto and Cincinnati (even though negative samples taken on particular days during those tournaments don’t necessarily prove she didn’t use banned substances at other times during those same tournaments). In the end, the tribunal appears to have yielded primarily to its sympathy over the fact that the two-year suspension will likely end Llagostera Vives’ career. It allowed all five results to stand, saying that while “it would appear to make no practical difference whether she retains the ranking points…, it would not be fair in all the circumstances to deprive her of the” $34,340 in prize money she collected.