CAS Shortens Troicki’s Suspension

The Court of Arbitration for Sport has reduced Viktor Troicki’s suspension for failing to submit a required blood sample from 18 months to 12, meaning he will be eligible to play again on July 15, 2014. Hearing Troicki’s appeal of the ITF tribunal’s original decision, the CAS was less willing than the ITF tribunal to discount Troicki’s description of his conversation with Dr. Elena Gorodilova, the ITF’s doping control officer at the Monte Carlo tournament on the day of Troicki’s test.

Background

Troicki was selected to give both blood and urine samples after his 63-minute straight-sets first-round loss to Jarkko Nieminen on April 15. Troicki provided the urine sample but said he couldn’t provide the blood sample because he didn’t feel well. Dr. Gorodilova confirmed that he looked tired and weak. Troicki also established to the satisfaction of the ITF tribunal that he has had a lifelong phobia of needles, but the CAS placed much less emphasis on this factor.

Having initially refused to sign a required “blood doping control form” because he didn’t want to give a sample, Troicki signed the form’s notification section after Dr. Gorodilova pointed out that he could be punished if he didn’t sign it. The last of three sentences in the box above his signature reads, “I understand that any refusal or failure to submit to doping control and/or any attempt to interfere with the doping control process may be treated as an anti-doping rule violation.”

After he asked whether it would be a violation if he was unable to submit a blood sample, Troicki claims Dr. Gorodilova told him that if he didn’t feel well, he should write a letter explaining this to the ITF, and that once he did so, “it should be all right”. He says she then helped him write the letter, largely telling him what to write. In his testimony before the CAS, he does not seem to have repeated the assertion he made to the ITF tribunal that Dr. Gorodilova assured him she was “100%” confident the letter would allow him to avoid sanctions, an assertion the ITF tribunal found was completely uncorroborated by other witnesses.

Dr. Gorodilova has consistently disputed Troicki’s account, in an email written to her supervisor the same day of the test, in a report she submitted the following day, in her testimony before the ITF tribunal and again to the CAS panel. She says that she told him she “could not advise him on whether or not [his feeling unwell] would be considered a valid excuse,” and that her “own understanding was that if you are selected and notified that you are required to provide a sample, you must provide the sample in all cases.” She also denies dictating his letter.

I discussed more details of the dispute and surrounding circumstances in my analysis of the ITF tribunal’s original decision.

CAS Decision

In its explanation of its ruling, the CAS reached a similar conclusion to the ITF tribunal on the nature of Troicki’s anti-doping violation and the applicable rules, but took a different approach to resolving the factual disputes in the case and determining the appropriate sentence.

Under the rules of the ITF Anti-Doping Program, the standard two-year suspension for a failure to submit a required sample can be “eliminated” if a player “establishes… that he/she bears No Fault or Negligence” (Article 10.5.1), and can be reduced to a minimum of one year if the player “establishes… that he/she bears No Significant Fault or Negligence” (Article 10.5.2, emphasis added). The CAS found that Troicki “does bear a degree of fault”, flatly agreeing on that point with the ITF tribunal, which concluded that “he is unable sufficiently to justify his actions to escape liability under the Charge.”

In assessing Troicki’s “degree of fault” for the purposes of setting the length of his suspension under Article 10.5.2, the CAS took a different approach than the ITF tribunal. Rather than concluding that Troicki’s decisionmaking was hindered by the stress he was under on the day of the test due to his physical condition and needle phobia, the CAS focused instead on the misunderstanding and conflicting perceptions between Troicki and Dr. Gorodilova. Rather than analyzing the testimony of multiple witnesses and assessing their individual credibility to decide whether Troicki’s or Dr. Gorodilova’s story was more accurate, the CAS took their conflicting testimony as strong evidence that there was a misunderstanding between them, for which it found Dr. Gorodilova partly responsible. Due to that misunderstanding, the panel found that Troicki “does not bear significant fault” under the meaning of that phrase in Article 10.5.2.

The CAS concluded that both Troicki and Dr. Gorodilova:

…[W]ere credible witnesses and gave their testimony before the Panel in good faith and to the best of their recollection, though the recollection of the Athlete in particular was coloured by his subsequent reconstruction of events.

It also found that:

Dr Gorodilova, with her extensive experience as a DCO, did indeed inform the Athlete that, once selected, he had to undergo the test and that if he failed to do so, he could face sanctions. The Panel is also of the view that she did inform the Athlete, when she suggested that he write a letter to the ITF, that she was not the person who could take the decision and that it would be up to the ITF to decide whether the reasons he invoked in his letter would excuse his failure to provide a blood sample.

On the other hand, the CAS also concluded that:

…[M]ainly because of his physical and mental conditions on that day but also because of what Dr Gorodilova did and did not do in the [doping control station], the Athlete sincerely believed that he had received the DCO’s assurance that, even if he did not submit a blood sample on that day, he would not commit an offence.

The CAS also pointed out that Dr. Gorodilova missed potential opportunities to persuade Troicki to submit the blood sample or convey to him the seriousness of the situation, for example by failing to explain the possible penalties, to enlist the help of Troicki’s coach, or to call an ATP Tour representative to give Troicki additional advice.

For these reasons, the CAS seems to have located Troicki’s “degree of fault” on the low end of the scale, and therefore assigned him the minimum penalty allowed under the ITF’s rules—a 12-month suspension.

For her part, Dr. Gorodilova insisted to the the ITF tribunal that she didn’t make more effort to persuade Troicki because, in the tribunal’s words, he “had made it clear that his mind was made up—he was not prepared to give blood despite her efforts to encourage him to do so.”

Troicki and his attorneys attempted to argue that a 12-month suspension is disproportionate because it is longer than some suspensions given to players who test positive for banned substances—Marin Cilic, to take the most recent example. However, the CAS rightly points out that the rules give greater discretion in sentencing only in cases where an athlete tests positive for certain “specified substances” (which are banned only when the athlete tests positive during competition) and “where the athlete can demonstrate he did not intend to enhance his sport performance”. In contrast, in a case like Troicki’s, the CAS observes that “there is no way of knowing what would have been found in the sample if it had been given”, and therefore no way to assess whether grounds exist for further reduction of the sentence.

Reactions

It’s clear from the testimony in hearings before both the ITF tribunal and the CAS panel that Troicki and his coach went into the doping control station in Monte Carlo with an irresponsibly poor understanding of their obligations under anti-doping rules, and it seems Troicki, his team, and his defenders on tour come out of the adjudication and arbitration process with expectations and attitudes that remain unreasonable and irrational. Troicki issued a statement to the press after the CAS decision, overdramatically asserting that:

…[T]his decision puts an end to my dreams of being a top player, of reaching the ATP finals and fighting against the best in the world. I worked my entire life for it, and it has been taken away from me in one afternoon by a doctor I didn’t know.

Asked for comment after his World Tour Finals match yesterday, Troicki’s countryman Novak Djokovic said:

It’s very bad news that we got for him, and for me, for all of us who are close to him. But I think it’s just not bad news for him, it proves again that this system of WADA and anti-doping agency does not work.

Without mentioning her name, Djokovic went on to criticize Dr. Gorodilova for failing to explain the rules and potential penalties, accused her of “negligence… and unprofessionalism”, and said “it makes [him] nervous as a player, to do any kind of test.”

Perhaps Djokovic can’t be blamed for accepting his friend Troicki’s version of events at face value, but as an elite professional he should understand that ultimately the responsibility to know and follow the rules lies with the player. He has no rational basis for questioning the integrity of WADA, the testing laboratories, or the anti-doping system as a whole simply because of the mistakes made by one doping control officer employed by an independent contractor. For his part, Troicki would look better if he showed some contrition or acknowledged that he’d learned something from the experience, rather than exaggerating the impact of the suspension on his career. It’s not unusual for tennis players to effectively lose whole seasons, whether due to injuries, illnesses, or other circumstances. At 27, Troicki can expect to play ATP-level tennis for at least a few more years, and to return close to his former level, if he dedicates himself to it with the necessary attitude.

Those who feel Troicki’s punishment was too harsh need to stop and think about what would happen if players could expect to avoid doping tests at will, without significant penalty, simply by looking physically distressed, saying they don’t feel well, and saying they lack a minimal understanding of the rules and the doping control officer didn’t explain the rules forcefully enough. Part of the art of modern doping is to calibrate and time one’s doses to minimize the chance of testing positive. Whether a player gives a sample now or in a few hours from now can easily make the difference between testing positive and testing clean. Some doping agents can only be detected by blood tests, and some can only be detected by a properly orchestrated series of blood tests, taken at intervals over time. Any loophole that allows players to skip or delay tests here or there is likely to be exploited, sooner or later, by someone who really intends to cheat.

Indeed, it could be argued that in its recent decisions in the cases of Troicki and Cilic, the CAS has been too willing to accept at face value both players’ assertions of ignorance—of their most basic obligations under the rules, of the potential penalties, and in Cilic’s case, of the substances he was ingesting. Given the hazards of doping in modern professional sports, efforts by the ITF, ATP, and WTA to educate them, and their frequent encounters with anti-doping representatives themselves, it’s difficult to understand how tour-level players today could sustain such a lack of awareness.

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CAS Reduces Cilic Suspension

Upon an appeal by Marin Cilic, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has reduced his doping suspension from nine months to four, meaning he will be eligible to return to action next week in Paris. According to its brief press release, the CAS ruled that Cilic’s “degree of fault” was less than was assigned by the ITF’s independent tribunal, and that therefore the tribunal’s sentence was too harsh.

The CAS specified that the four-month suspension effectively began when Cilic withdrew from Wimbledon to begin serving a voluntary provisional suspension on June 26. According to the ITF’s own release, this means “Cilic’s results subsequent to the BMW Open [in Munich] will not be disqualified,” so he will regain his ranking points and prize money from Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros, Queen’s Club, and Wimbledon.

My analysis and commentary on the ITF tribunal’s full original decision is here. It appears the CAS will release its own full decision document “in due course”, and when it does I’ll post further analysis here.

Based on the facts as they appear at the moment, I find it hard to understand how the CAS justifies a suspension this short. Even giving full credit to Cilic’s own version of events, it seems to me that the his negligence and degree of fault are higher than were established in the case of Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, for example. Both claimed they ingested banned stimulants unintentionally by using products they believed contained no banned substances. But Cilic used a product that was clearly labeled as a stimulant medication (though not in a language he speaks very well), while Zahlavova Strycova used a product labeled as a berry-based natural weight-loss supplement. And Cilic’s use of “Coramine Glucose” lozenges in order to help his absorption of creatine tends to indicate a certain intent to enhance his athletic performance, even though the tribunal found that intent didn’t meet the strict definition of the phrase under anti-doping rules. Zahlavova Strycova served a six-month suspension.

Posted in ATP, Doping, Opinion | Tagged | 10 Comments

WTA Championships Preview

It’s time for the season-ending championships again, a time of year top tennis stars and hardcore fans alike greet with a mixture of nervous excitement and exhausted relief. Eight of the WTA’s top nine players gather in Istanbul for an indoor showdown that will have spectators breathtaken by quick points and bewildered by the complexity of round-robin standings. Current number-three Maria Sharapova is still out of action recovering from shoulder bursitis. Number-ten Caroline Wozniacki and number-eleven Sloane Stephens will be waiting in the wings as alternates in case one of the direct entries is unable to play all her round-robin matches.

Most of the players in Istanbul have played each other many times before, in a variety of circumstances. Indeed, seven of this year’s players were also in the WTA Championships field last year. Therefore, the players’ head-to-head records give us a pretty good idea how they’re likely to match up. With the arguable exceptions of Serena Williams and Jelena Jankovic, this year’s players are much more capable than they were four years ago, so I also broke out their records over the last three years, as well as on hard courts:

(You can also download the head-to-head grids in pdf format.)

Head-to-head numbers hardly tell the whole story, though. It’s been a long season, and players’ motivation, energy, and form will vary. Only Angelique Kerber has played in the last three weeks. Some players will adjust to the indoor conditions better than others. There aren’t many indoor events on the WTA schedule these days, especially ones that fit well into top stars’ schedules. Although many played indoor clay events in the spring, six players will be playing their first matches of the year on indoor hard courts. Petra Kvitova has built a reputation as a queen of indoor hard courts, but hasn’t played on one since Fed Cup in February. Kerber won the Linz title indoors two weeks ago, looks more confident, aggressive, and happy on court lately, and could have an early advantage.

Going down the ranking list one pair of players at a time, players were randomly drawn into either of two round-robin groups. Today through Friday, each player will play against every other player in her group. The best two players in each group advance to Saturday’s semifinals, where the first-place finisher from each group plays the runner-up from the opposite group. If two players finish round-robin play with the same match record, the match they played against each other breaks the tie. Three-way ties are decided by sets won and lost, and if necessary, games.

Red Group

Most of the tournament’s firepower has ended up in the Red Group. With an amazing 73-4 match record this year and astonishingly having lost only one match in her career to the other players in the group (combined!), Serena Williams is the clear favorite. Nothing will be easy though, in this field. Serena’s first match comes today against Kerber, who has already adjusted to playing indoors, and who beat her in straight sets last year in Cincinnati. Agnieszka Radwanska is much more of a threat to Williams than the one-way head-to-head seems to indicate, having taken Serena to three sets in last year’s Wimbledon final and played her close this year in Toronto. If Williams’ accuracy or speed are off, Aga has the versatile and unshakable game to take advantage of it. There’s no question that on her best form, Petra Kvitova has the power and natural aggressiveness to match Serena, and there’s no place she’s more likely to find that form than on an indoor hard court.

After Williams, Kvitova is the most likely to advance, but only by a narrow margin. The indoor conditions suit her game. Winning Tokyo and reaching the Beijing semifinals, Petra had the best fall season in the WTA—but she didn’t do it without showing she’s still a very inconsistent player. Starting with the Tokyo semifinals, Petra has played six straight three-set matches, losing a 6-0 set to Kerber and two 6-1 sets to Jankovic. Kvitova matches up well against Radwanska—Aga’s only victory against her came in Istanbul last year just before Petra withdrew with a viral illness—but once again Aga will take advantage of any lapse in Petra’s form. Kerber has very close records against both Kvitova and Radwanska, and the scorelines of very nearly every match are close as well. If Angie catches just one opponent insufficiently prepared for the pressure of the event or the indoor conditions, it might well give her the edge she needs to reach the semifinals.

White Group

The White Group seems much easier to predict, although again every player earned her way into this field against tough competition, and no one should be written off. Despite having failed to win a match since the US Open (with tough opening-round draws in Tokyo and Beijing against underranked Venus Williams and Andrea Petkovic), if Victoria Azarenka is motivated she’ll be the favorite. Azarenka’s close head-to-head records against Li Na and Jankovic are deceptive—Vika has won her last five matches against Na and her last four against JJ. Many have pointed out that Sara Errani’s one victory against Azarenka came in the only match they’ve ever played on an indoor hard court, but that was in 2008, when both were very different players. Li can’t match Azarenka’s consistency and versatility, and Errani and Jankovic can’t match her power.

Li is likely to emerge from this group as the runner-up. Always a powerful shotmaker dangerous to any opponent, she’s become much more technically and mentally consistent over the past year or so. Her head-to-head record versus Jankovic looks complicated, but one match stands out—in their only hardcourt match since 2009, Li prevailed, 6-3 6-0 this year at the US Open. Li’s head-to-head against Errani is much simpler—in eleven sets they’ve played, Na has lost more than two games only twice.

To me, the most intriguing match in this group will be between the two underdogs, Jankovic and Errani. Amazingly, these two seasoned and determined competitors who largely prefer the same surfaces have only played each other once before, Jankovic winning a close three-setter in Indian Wells in 2010. A two-time WTA Championships semifinalist, JJ returns to the event for the first time since going 0-3 in round-robin play in 2010. Jankovic should be well motivated, and with her flatter hitting likely to suit the conditions better, she would seem the more likely victor. But Errani has become a much more confident and aggressive player over the last two years, and surprised a lot of people in Istanbul last year by playing Radwanska to a close three-setter and beating first alternate Stosur, 6-0 in the third set. Sarita will be determined to show her competitive potential again, and is probably the more mentally resilient of the two.

Semifinals and Beyond

If the round robin groups play out as I’ve predicted, the semifinals will feature Serena Williams vs. Li Na and Victoria Azarenka vs. Petra Kvitova.

Many fans have been eagerly anticipating another Vika-Petra match since Kvitova won her fourth straight match against Azarenka to win the WTA Championships two years ago, capping the season of her career. That was before Vika tasted a slam victory or reached the number-one ranking, however. Since then, Vika has become a more consistent, confident, and determined competitor, and Petra has slid toward the consistent inconsistency that has defined most of her career. Another match between them in Istanbul would be intriguing and likely very competitive.

A Serena-Na match is likely to be fun to watch, especially for fans of power and quick points. Their matches almost always feature close sets. But there wouldn’t be too much doubt about the outcome: Li hasn’t actually won a set from Williams since 2009.

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The Cilic Decision, Trust, and Evidence

(Update, October 25: The Court of Arbitration for Sport has reduced Cilic’s suspension to four months, on appeal. See here for my summary and reaction.)

Yesterday the International Tennis Federation released its tribunal’s full decision in Marin Cilic’s doping case, in which it suspended him for nine months for taking the banned stimulant nikethamide. It reveals that some of the details in earlier press reports were inaccurate, and provides an interesting chronology of the supplement use that led to his doping violation. I summarize the most significant points, and then comment on the bizarre early reaction among writers and fans.

The Facts and the Decision

Since 2010, Cilic has worked with a personal trainer named Slaven Hrvoj, who the tribunal found has no “scientific qualifications in nutrition or pharmacology”. Hrvoj felt Cilic wasn’t eating enough, and told him to take supplements containing glucose, electrolytes, and proteins. Glucose is a simple sugar, naturally produced by the human body as it breaks down other sugars and starches, and is an ingredient found in food products in most countries. At a Croatian grocery store, Cilic bought a glucose powder called Traubenzucker, which also contained a form of vitamin B3, also known in English as niacinamide or nicotinamide, and in Croatian as nikotinamid.

In 2012 Cilic became dissatisfied with his form and results and began taking creatine supplements. Hrvoj recommended the creatine, and told him that taking it with glucose would help his body absorb it. Creatine is produced naturally by the human body, is naturally present in meat, and plays a key role in transferring chemical energy inside muscle cells. There is evidence that taking creatine supplements increases the power an athlete’s muscles can generate over short periods of time (seconds). Since the 1990s, many athletes have taken creatine in doses considerably higher than those found in food, in the belief that it boosts muscle mass, strength, and athletic performance in a more general sense. While creatine is not a banned substance, its use as a supplement is discouraged by some sports and health authorities. For example, the National Collegiate Athletic Association in the United States prohibits its member schools from providing it to their student athletes. In high doses, it can damage the kidneys and disrupt liver function.

In mid-April, 2013, Cilic was at his apartment in Monte Carlo when he found that he was running low on the Traubenzucker glucose powder. He sent his mother to a nearby pharmacy (not in Germany, as implied by previous reports) to buy more. Although she didn’t speak French, she showed the pharmacist a piece of paper with the word “glucose” written on it, and tried to convey (with a stranger’s help in translating) that it was for her son who plays tennis professionally. The pharmacist suggested a product labeled “Coramine Glucose”, which listed its ingredients in French on the front of the package as nicéthamide and glucose monohydrate. Cilic’s mother bought it and left it in Cilic’s kitchen.

A few days later, on April 22, Cilic found the Coramine Glucose lozenges. He noticed that the front of the package listed nicéthamide as an ingredient, but wrongly assumed this was the same as nikotinamid, the vitamin present in his Traubenzucker powder. He didn’t realize the significance of other text on the front of the package, which advertised it as an “antiasthénique” (stimulant) to treat “sensation de fatigue notamment en altitude” (the sensation of fatigue especially at high altitude). He failed to read the side of the package, which described it as a “médicament” (medication), or the leaflet inside, which under the header “Sportifs: Attention…” warned that an ingredient in the product could result in a positive doping test for athletes (boldface in original).

Apparently more concerned that the lozenges didn’t contain enough glucose than he was that they might contain a banned substance, Cilic took a picture of the front of the package and sent it electronically to Hrvoj, asking if they would be an adequate substitute for his usual glucose product. Like Cilic, Hrvoj made no effort beyond looking at the front of the package to find out whether the product contained a banned substance, and failed to discover that “Coramine” is in fact simply a brand name for the banned stimulant nikethamide. Hrvoj told Cilic that the lozenges contained little glucose, but told him to take two per day anyway until Hrvoj met him at the Munich tournament on April 27 with more Traubenzucker powder.

After his opening-round loss to Ivan Dodig in Munich on May 1, Cilic was selected for a doping test and gave a urine sample, which later tested positive for a trace of nikethamide, even though Cilic apparently hadn’t taken any of the Coramine lozenges since April 26.

On June 11, before his first match at Queen’s Club, Cilic received an email from the ITF notifying him of the positive test and charging him with a doping offense. On June 26th, two days after Cilic beat Marcos Baghdatis in the first round at Wimbledon, his lawyers replied to the charges, saying he would accept a voluntary provisional suspension pending the tribunal’s decision. As the tribunal puts it, Cilic then “withdrew from Wimbledon, citing a knee injury to avoid adverse publicity.” Cilic continues to assert that he did in fact have a knee injury at Wimbledon, and that tournament doctors treated him for it.

The tribunal recognized that nikethamide is “by nature performance enhancing” and that the Coramine lozenges were “intended to help the player’s body absorb creatine”. But, because creatine is not a prohibited substance, because nikethamide is “only performance enhancing for a short time”, because Cilic last took the Coramine lozenges “when he knew he would not be competing until five days later”, and because he switched back to the Traubenzucker powder upon arriving in Munich, the tribunal concluded that he took the Coramine without an “intent to enhance sport performance” under the meaning of section 10.4 of the ITF Anti-Doping rules. This means Cilic is entitled to have his sentence reduced from the default two-year suspension, to a degree determined by his “degree of fault”. Despite accepting the truth of his story and finding that his mistakes were “understandable”, the tribunal found that Cilic’s “degree of fault” was “quite high”. It pointed out the many easy ways Cilic could have discovered that the Coramine lozenges contained a banned substance—by reading the side of the package, by reading the leaflet inside, by searching the internet for the brand name, or by consulting the wallet card the ITF had provided him listing banned substances. It decided that a nine-month suspension was appropriate to the combination of circumstances in Cilic’s case.

The suspension is backdated to begin on May 1, the date Cilic submitted the positive sample, and lasts through January 31, 2014. Cilic forfeits his results, ranking points and prize money from Munich and his subsequent tournaments: Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros, Queen’s Club, and Wimbledon.

The Scandal Is About… Who Said What When?

Like last week when the ITF first announced Cilic’s suspension in a brief press release, many commentators continue to focus on criticizing the ITF’s silence on the case from May to September. Now Cilic himself is receiving more criticism for deceptively attributing his Wimbledon withdrawal to a knee injury than he is for his negligence in violating the anti-doping rules themselves. But players withdraw from tournaments all the time without announcing the full reasons why, whether they want to rest after an unexpected success in a previous tournament, work to prepare for a more important tournament in the future, attend a family gathering, deal with legal problems, or just to avoid a long plane trip. Most often they attribute such withdrawals to injury, but this is seldom an outright lie—playing professional tennis is hard on the body, and virtually every player has some minor physical problem at any given stage of the season. It would be nice if players were more open about their reasons for withdrawing, but their physical need to manage their schedules while maintaining relationships with sponsors and tournament directors inevitably leads many to withhold part of the truth.

The ITF announced Cilic’s sentence on Monday, September 16. This turns out to be the very next business day after the tribunal held its hearing on Friday, September 13. That’s a prompt disclosure. Of course, as fans of the sport, we would like to know what’s going on with players (and with possible doping offenses) as soon as possible. The nearly two-month delay since the press began to report Cilic tested positive has been frustrating. But as I pointed out last week, the ITF has other concerns besides the hunger of fans and journalists for instant gratification. It would be irresponsible for the ITF to make accusations or release incomplete descriptions of facts before accused players have a chance to defend themselves. Furthermore, as a private organization, the ITF does not have governmental immunity like a police agency or prosecutor. While a government can announce that a suspect has been arrested before the case is tried, a tennis player hastily accused of a doping violation could sue the ITF for damages, especially if later absolved of the charges.

Trust, Evidence and Justice

Part of the reason people are impatient is that they don’t trust the ITF to handle cases fairly. This is partly due to cases that occurred many years ago when justice went unserved by a much more naive, weaker and less regulated anti-doping system (as when the ATP let Andre Agassi escape suspension after a positive methamphetamine test in 1997, detailed in Agassi’s autobiography, Open). It’s partly due to continuing charges that the ITF cannot prosecute major doping cases effectively because it’s too financially dependent on the popularity of a few star players—a charge I refuted in February with an analysis of the ITF’s actual budget. And it’s partly due to ongoing rumors, speculation, and conspiracy theories based on people’s failure to read the rules of the ITF and the World Anti-Doping Agency and understand how the process actually works.

Like governing bodies for other sports, for example, the ITF imposes suspensions on players who have been found guilty of doping offenses by its tribunal. The ITF’s rules also specify that it will impose mandatory provisional suspensions (Section 8.3.1) on players who test positive for certain substances, pending analysis of a second sample and a hearing before the tribunal. The WADA Code allows governing bodies to impose what it calls optional provisional suspensions (Section 7.5.2) for other types of violations pending a hearing, but the ITF’s policy allows it to impose what it calls discretionary provisional suspensions (Section 8.3.2) only when the accused player admits guilt. Finally, the ITF rules specify that a player accused of any offense can accept a voluntary provisional suspension (Section 8.3.5) as Cilic did during Wimbledon, in which case the player gets credit for the period of the provisional suspension against any suspension eventually imposed after a hearing. In optional or discretionary provisional suspensions, the option or discretion rests with the governing body—it can choose whether to impose the suspension or not. In a voluntary provisional suspension, the volition rests with the accused player, who can choose whether to accept it or not.

Many press reports on the Cilic case have completely overlooked the distinctions between these various types of suspensions. For example, Alex Duff of Bloomberg Businessweek says that Cilic “was handed a nine-month ban by the ITF” and that he began serving it on June 26 at Wimbledon, falsely implying that the ITF imposed the suspension on June 26. This oversimplification leads to the even more misleading and irresponsible implication that the following three months—in which the ITF tribunal obtained witness statements and solicited multiple rounds of briefs from attorneys on both sides, conducted a day-long hearing, deliberated and considered relevant legal precedents, and produced an exhaustive legal document explaining and justifying its decision and sentence—were all part of a cynical cover-up. The only facts Duff cites to support his insinuation that the ITF is corrupt are irrelevant, because they refer to cases handled in the 1990s by the ATP, before the ITF had jurisdiction over doping in ATP tournaments and before WADA even existed. The rest is all speculation, and quoting the speculation of others.

While much remains to be done to strengthen its budget and testing regime, the anti-doping system in tennis is improving. The ITF has initiated a biological passport program (a testing method I explained here). Because this involves building up extensive records of blood test data for each player taken over time, it’s too soon for its impact to be felt, but it has the potential to catch sophisticated forms of doping that would have gone undetected in the past. Though critics will inevitably disagree with certain details, recent decisions by the ITF tribunal show thoroughness and a dedication to justice and clean sport. The ITF has committed itself to follow the WADA Code and use WADA-accredited testing laboratories, and has accepted the oversight of WADA itself, an organization funded by national governments and the Olympic Movement and independent from any single sport. These improvements, checks, and balances should earn a measure of trust from fans.

Of course, the potential for corruption, apathy, or incompetence on the part of anti-doping authorities remains, and a certain degree of skepticism is healthy. But if we wish to reduce the prevalence of doping, we must also place faith in some institution with the authority to enforce the rules. Due to its arms-length relationship with even the slam tournaments and its lack of any direct financial relationship with WTA and ATP tournaments and their sponsors, the ITF is the most promising such institution we have in tennis. While they have a contribution to make, national police agencies are subject to their own restraints and potential conflicts of interest. As fans we must accept that we will never have all the facts the moment a doping case breaks, as frustrating as that might be, and we should refrain from accusing the ITF of corruption unless we have a sufficient understanding of the process and a complete enough set of facts to justify such accusations—just as it refrains from publicly accusing a player until it has more evidence than a single positive test result.

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ITF Announces Cilic Doping Suspension

The International Tennis Federation announced today that Marin Cilic has been suspended from the sport for nine months after testing positive for the banned stimulant nikethamide.

As previously reported, Cilic tested positive while competing in the Munich tournament at the beginning of May.

(Note: Some of the details in the rest of this post are taken from early reports that turn out to be inaccurate. See my analysis of the ITF tribunal’s full decision, which contains a more authoritative enumeration of the facts.)

Cilic says he sent a member of his team to buy a glucose supplement at a local pharmacy, and that this product was the source of the nikethamide. The product’s package reportedly warned professional athletes not to take it, but Cilic didn’t read the warning.

It’s not entirely clear yet exactly which product Cilic used. The ITF describes it as “Coramine glucose tablets”. But “Coramine” is an English-language brand name for nikethamide, not for glucose, which is merely a simple sugar. There are many products that contain both nikethamide and glucose, and in some countries these are available without a prescription. One such product, aggressively marketed in Germany, is Gly-Coramin, whose name makes it plausible to mistake it for a simple glucose supplement. However, its package says in German, French, and Italian that it “provides energy and stimulates respiration and circulation”. (Cilic trained for years in Italy and now lives in Monaco, where the official language is French.) Gly-Coramin’s Swiss-German website lists “Nikethamid” as the first active ingredient.

Because the ITF’s independent tribunal believed Cilic’s claim that he ingested the nikethamide unintentionally, it reduced his suspension from the standard two years for a first such offense to only nine months. The suspension is backdated to begin on May 1, the date Cilic submitted the positive sample, and lasts through January 31, 2014. Cilic forfeits his results, ranking points and prize money from Munich and the subsequent tournaments he played before accepting a voluntary provisional suspension: Madrid, Rome, Roland Garros, Queen’s Club, and Wimbledon. The loss of these points will cause Cilic’s ranking to fall to approximately #37 next week.

During the week of Munich, Cilic was ranked #11 in the world, making him the highest-ranked player to be suspended for an anti-doping offense since Martina Hingis in 2008.

Many fans and pundits have demanded that the ITF be quicker to publicly share information on positive tests and doping investigations. Four and a half months have passed since Cilic’s positive test, and a month and a half since the investigation was first revealed through anonymously sourced press reports. However, the case of Chris Horner makes it clear why, to limit its liability and the potential for hasty, inaccurate accusations, the ITF doesn’t comment on investigations until they are complete and its tribunal has made an official decision. Horner, an American cyclist who just won the prestigious Vuelta a España, is threatening to sue the sport’s anti-doping authorities after they allegedly leaked an accusation that he missed a doping test during the race. According to Horner, the testers looked for him at the wrong hotel because they failed to access his updated whereabouts information.

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US Open Women’s Draw Analysis

The tennis tours have sweated their way once again to the sauna of summer in the eastern United States, and the sport’s last big show of the year is about to get underway. Players are tired and their injuries are accumulating, but those who are still standing will make at least one more push for glory under the lights of the US Open.

Here is my in-depth analysis of the women’s draw. In each eighth, I list the seeded players and a few others who have a chance to pull off upsets, along with their updated form scores based on results through last week’s tournaments. Players scoring greater than 5 are playing above their current ranking; players scoring below 4 are struggling. After discussing how I see the early rounds unfolding, I make predictions for the later rounds at the end.

This post is now complete, updated with analysis of the bottom half of the draw, which starts play today.

Williams’ Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Williams, S 1 1 5.0
Stephens 15 16 4.7
Hampton 23 26 4.6
Rybarikova 29 31 8.6
Mladenovic 36 0.7
Radwanska, U 38 4.1
Shvedova 78 4.8

On paper, it would seem Serena Williams has an unusually tricky first-round match, against Francesca Schiavone. Schiavone will fight hard and will try to throw Williams off her rhythm by charging the net or mixing up the spin on the ball. But Schiavone has never won a set from Williams on any surface other than clay, and is more erratic now than she was in her heyday. Unless Serena has a very bad day, she’ll outclass Francesca in power and precision and dominate the match.

Williams’ next match should be easier, against either Monica Niculescu or Galina Voskoboeva. Both have unorthodox games that can trouble many players, but both have also had mixed results lately and won’t have answers for Serena’s power.

Serena should be concerned to see Yaroslava Shvedova lurking in the draw as a potential third-round opponent. Shvedova is a streaky shotmaker who fought Williams to a close third set at Wimbledon last year. However, after taking nearly two months off to recover from an arm injury, Shvedova retired from her second-round qualifying match last week in New Haven—with an injury to the same arm. It’s not clear that she’ll be able to play at all, let alone navigate her own tricky draw to the third round.

Most significantly, Magdalena Rybarikova looms as Shvedova’s likely second-round opponent. Rybarikova is a skilled and versatile all-court player whose week-to-week inconsistency has largely kept her from fulfilling her potential over the years. But her recent results suggest that may be changing. In the last four weeks, Rybarikova has compiled a 10–2 match record, beating top-10 players Marion Bartoli and Angelique Kerber, and losing only to #2 Victoria Azarenka and #1 Serena Williams. Unfortunately for Rybarikova’s hopes of surviving to the second week of the US Open, though, she won only two games in the match against Serena—the only time they’ve played.

Sloane Stephens is already building a reputation as a player who saves her best for the slam tournaments. While that might be a good thing for an established star seeking to prolong her career, the 20-year-old is nowhere near that stage, measured by either her years on tour or the contents of her trophy case. In her last six slams, Stephens has a 19–6 record, never losing before the third round. However, during those runs Stephens has beaten only one top-20 player—an injured and slow Serena Williams at the Australian Open.

While Stephens has the power and talent to reel off winners and dictate play against most opponents, she has a natural tendency to play more conservatively and wait for her opponents to make errors. Particularly in WTA Tour tournaments, she often struggles to decide which strategy to employ and shows extended lapses of focus that make her vulnerable to defeat. It’s only a matter of time before a lower-ranked opponent shakes her confidence enough to expose these weaknesses in a slam.

Sloane should have little trouble in the first round against Mandy Minella, who aside from one standout run to the semifinals in Marrakech has had a dismal season. But in the second round she is likely to face a much more serious threat from Urszula Radwanska, who beat her in straight sets in Indian Wells this year (their only meeting). While Ula can’t match the precision and touch of her sister Agnieszka, she’s getting closer and is the more powerful of the two from the baseline. To beat Ula, Stephens will have to be aggressive enough to keep her under pressure and consistent enough to profit from Radwanska’s inevitable errors.

If Stephens gets past that test, she’s likely face a similar challenge from versatile and aggressive shotmaker Jamie Hampton in the third round. Or she could meet the tall and talented 20-year-old Kristina Mladenovic, who started the season very well, but whose successes this summer have been surprisingly confined to doubles.

If Sloane runs that gauntlet, she’s likely to meet Serena in the fourth round. Serena had some trouble with an abdominal injury two weeks ago in Cincinnati, and her game doesn’t look as invincible as it did a year ago. But Williams will be very determined not to lose to Stephens twice in a row.

Predicted fourth round: S. Williams d. Hampton
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Radwanska, U
Not to be counted out: Stephens, Mladenovic

Kerber’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Kerber 8 9 1.9
Flipkens 12 14 4.3
Suarez Navarro 18 20 3.5
Kanepi 25 27 10.2
Voegele 49 2.1
Bouchard 59 6.5
Williams, V 60 3.0
Davis 70 5.4
King 130 8.3

Angelique Kerber is still a reliably competitive player who makes opponents beat her. But she seems unable to sustain her forehand’s power and depth throughout a difficult match as well as she did last year, and her confidence has eroded as a result. She hasn’t beaten a top-20 player since April, and will be vulnerable to a player who can overpower her defense without donating too many errors.

Unless Kerber’s first-round opponent, the powerful Lucie Hradecka, has one of her extremely rare days when she can’t miss, she won’t cause much trouble. But 19-year-old Eugenie Bouchard could be a much greater threat in the second round. To her already formidable baseline firepower, Bouchard is adding improved defense and skill at the net. If Bouchard plays well, she could knock off the eighth seed, helping to blow this section of the draw wide open.

By seeding, whoever wins that match should face Kaia Kanepi. But Kanepi mysteriously hasn’t played in almost two months, and her hardcourt form is anyone’s guess. An Estonian press report quotes her father as saying she is healthy, but nevertheless decided not to play any hardcourt tournaments this summer. Kanepi was last seen firing winners at will on her way the quarterfinals at Wimbledon (where she upset Kerber in the second round). But if she’s rusty or physically not at her best, her time in New York could be cut short.

Kanepi’s first-round opponent, Vania King, has had a mostly dismal season and seen her ranking fall well outside the top 100. But she showed signs of turning that around two weeks ago in Cincinnati, beating the solid Paula Ormaechea and Niculescu to qualify, and then upsetting Mladenovic before losing to Azarenka. At her best, King is a smart all-court player who plays more aggressively than her size would suggest.

If Kanepi’s form is good enough to get past King, she’ll most likely face Stefanie Voegele, who has had a disappointing summer but is another smart all-court player, and who upset Kanepi at Roland Garros. Alternatively, Kanepi could face Anna Schmiedlova, a promising and solid 18-year-old who will make her pay if her timing is off.

If the seedings hold and Kanepi meets Kerber in the third round, Kaia will be playing well and I expect her to pull off the upset, extending her record against Angie to 3-0. Any third-round match involving Bouchard will be interesting and difficult to predict—the only players in the entire eighth Bouchard has faced before are Hradecka and Suarez Navarro. (She’s never beaten either of them.)

In the first round, Kirsten Flipkens and Venus Williams will play a rematch of their first-round encounter three weeks ago in Toronto. In that match, Williams came out strong and Flipkens came out rusty, playing her first match since Wimbledon. Williams won the first set, 6-0. And then Flipkens found her game of low slices and net approaches. Under more pressure, Venus’ accuracy disintegrated. Flipkens ended up winning the third set rather easily. Williams is 0-3 in three-set matches since April. It seems likely that at this stage of her career, if Venus is to beat a player of Flipkens’ quality, she’ll have to come out with all guns blazing and do it in straight sets.

On the other hand, if Venus can still step up and make another run, a slam is where she’ll do it. The outdoor hard courts suit Williams’ style better, too—Flipkens’ game is better suited to grass or indoor conditions.

If Flipkens survives that test, she shouldn’t have too much trouble in the second round, against either Zheng Jie or Kiki Bertens. Both players can be dangerous, but both are slumping badly, neither having beaten a top-70 player since May. Zheng stands a better chance if she meets Williams—she’s good at redirecting opponents’ power at difficult angles, and Venus’ ability to hit kicking serves may be lacking if she’s still affected by the back injury that has plagued her for most of the year.

Whoever emerges from that section is likely to meet the winner of an interesting first-round match between two natural counterpunchers, Carla Suarez Navarro and Lauren Davis. Both have the ability to seize control of points by placing the ball precisely and approaching the net, but Davis is the player with the hot hand at the moment. She beat lucky loser and #28 Svetlana Kuznetsova twice in a row in Toronto, once in qualifying and once in the main draw, and took a set from Li Na in Cincinnati.

To get past Davis, Suarez Navarro will have to serve well, take maximum advantage of her topspin, and play aggressively enough to take early and decisive control of points without yielding many errors. It won’t be easy for the Spaniard, who broke into the top 20 for the first time this year largely with success on clay and grass, and who has suffered disappointing losses to #131 Virginie Razzano and #77 Marina Erakovic on hard courts this month.

Predicted fourth round: Flipkens d. Bouchard
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Kerber
Not to be counted out: Kanepi

Radwanska’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Radwanska, A 3 4 4.6
Lisicki 16 18 6.5
Makarova 24 25 5.4
Pavlyuchenkova 32 33 4.1
Mattek-Sands 53 2.6
Date-Krumm 62 3.6
Erakovic 68 5.6
Ormaechea 71 3.3
Razzano 94 9.0

Agnieszka Radwanska has been criticized this season for some disappointing losses, but has managed her schedule better than in previous years and put herself in a position where it will be very difficult for anyone to overtake her in the rankings. At age 24, having been a fixture in the top 10 for most of the last 5 years, and troubled for much of the last 2 years by a painful shoulder issue, Aga is exactly the sort of player who should seek to peak at the slams. She’s done a pretty good job of it this year, and her shoulder appears to be improving.

After withdrawing from her quarterfinal in Cincinnati two weeks ago to attend her grandfather’s funeral, Radwanska should be able to work her way back into the tennis routine with an easy first-round match against clay-court specialist Silvia Soler-Espinosa. Marina Erakovic’s aggressive all-court game will likely be a stronger test in the second round, but Erakovic is generally too erratic to pose a genuine threat to a player as precise as Aga.

In the third round, Radwanska is most likely to face the winner of an interesting first-round match between two powerful but inconsistent players, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Virginie Razzano. Pavlyuchenkova is the favorite, but her form is questionable—until she upset Sabine Lisicki in New Haven last week, she hadn’t beaten a top-80 player in a completed match since April.

Nowadays Razzano is best known for upsetting Serena Williams in the first round of Roland Garros last year. But people tend to forget that she was ranked as high as #16 in 2009 before injuries, inconsistency, and the death of her fiancé derailed her career. There’s no better way to sum up Razzano’s unpredictability than to point out that after upsetting Kuznetsova, Suarez Navarro, and Petra Kvitova to reach the semifinals of Carlsbad a month ago, she lost to #845 Robin Anderson in the first round of a $25k ITF event the very next week. If Razzano plays her best, her more versatile all-court skills will run Pavlyuchenkova’s simpler power game out of the tournament.

It’s also worth mentioning the first-round match between Australian 17-year-old Ashleigh Barty and Estrella Cabeza Candela. Barty is exceptionally skilled and versatile for a player of her age, but has so far struggled to handle the power of established contenders at the WTA tour level. Cabeza Candela is a solid player with a strong serve, but is at her best on clay, and exactly the sort of player Barty needs to start beating consistently to establish herself at the professional level.

Sabine Lisicki has a renowned serve, powerful forehand, and improving touch, and at her best is a threat to anyone on fast surfaces. But more than half the ranking points she currently holds came from her inspired run to the Wimbledon final, without which her season would look mediocre. Sabine’s game depends heavily on precise timing, which she seems to find when court conditions or player matchups make her unusually comfortable and confident. The US Open is not an event where she has found such confidence in the past—she’s never beaten a top-30 opponent there.

Lisicki probably won’t have much trouble in the first round against qualifier Vera Dushevina, who was a top-50 player on several occasions and had a good run to the quarterfinals at Stanford last month, but for the last two years has unusually been too erratic to compete with tour-level opponents. In the second round, Lisicki will hope to encounter Kimiko Date-Krumm, against whom she has a 3-0 record, rather than Paula Ormaechea. Ormaechea is exactly the kind of solid clay-oriented baseliner that has caused Sabine trouble in the past on outdoor hard courts. (I wish I could forget her loss to Alberta Brianti at the Australian Open in 2010.)

If Lisicki survives those tests, she’s most likely to face Ekaterina Makarova in the third round, who could present another tricky matchup. A left-hander who can trade power from the baseline, defend, and finish points at the net, Makarova has a 1-1 record against Lisicki, but they haven’t played since 2009. Both have improved their games considerably since then, but Makarova has arguably made greater progress.

On the other hand, Makarova has a potentially tricky path to the third round herself. In the first round she faces the multi-talented but inconsistent and injury-plagued Polona Hercog, who seems to employ a totally different strategy every time I watch her play. In the second round, she’s likely to face Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a player whose aggressive tactics can sometimes seem as reckless as her taste in fashion, but who is very dangerous when on her game.

Predicted fourth round: A. Radwanska d. Makarova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Lisicki
Not to be counted out: Mattek-Sands

Li’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Li 5 6 5.9
Jankovic 9 12 6.3
Cirstea 19 22 9.1
Robson 30 32 5.5
Keys 39 3.9
Puig 44 6.2
Dominguez Lino 52 2.8
Garcia 75 3.2
Cetkovska 146 6.7

Li Na has greatly improved her week-to-week consistency with the help of coach Carlos Rodriguez, and shouldn’t face too serious a threat in the first round from Olga Govortsova. Govortsova can be a dangerous player, as she proved most recently by upsetting Julia Goerges and Sam Stosur to reach the Stanford quarterfinals. But Govortsova’s results since then have been underwhelming, and she has never taken a set from Li in three meetings.

Li could be tested in the second round if she meets Petra Cetkovska, who won their last match, in New Haven in 2011, in a third-set tiebreak. Cetkovska is a powerful and versatile player who doesn’t always seem to know how to apply her many tools, and has been stricken with a bewildering series of injuries. She returned to the tour in May after suffering a stress fracture in her foot, and by the following month at Wimbledon was playing with both thighs and both knees variously taped or braced. Two weeks later she retired from her first-round match at an ITF event, and then took another month off. She returned to play qualifying in Cincinnati and Toronto, losing close three-setters to Erakovic and Ayumi Morita. Either Cetkovska’s health or form are likely to prevent her from seriously testing Li—if they don’t cause her to fall to the slumping Sofia Arvidsson in the first round.

By seeding, in the third round Li should meet Laura Robson, who beat her in three sets in the US Open last year, their only meeting. But Robson has missed the last three weeks with an injury to her right (off) wrist, which reportedly has kept her from practicing properly. Lourdes Dominguez Lino, her first-round opponent, is a clay-court specialist, but has won both matches they’ve played, one of which was on hard court in Beijing last year.

It’s also possible Li could meet 19-year-old Caroline Garcia in the third round. Garcia is a talented and promising player, but still very inconsistent, and unlikely to trouble Li long enough to cause an upset. Li has never played Garcia before; she has won all four sets she has played against Dominguez Lino.

Very little about Jelena Jankovic’s form, tactics, or execution have been consistent over the last few years, but she has returned again and again to the top 20, more often through her stubborn competitiveness on court than due to occasional streaks when her game flows naturally. In the first round, she faces powerful 18-year-old Madison Keys, who normally would be a serious threat. But Keys hasn’t played since withdrawing from Toronto qualifying three weeks ago with a shoulder injury. She may not be close to her best, especially since her game is heavily dependent on her serve, and this is exactly the kind of weakness Jankovic will find a way to exploit.

The winner of that match is most likely to face another teenage rising star, ambitious 19-year-old shotmaker Monica Puig. Puig won’t have an easy first-round match against former top-20 player Alisa Kleybanova, who deserves a warm welcome back to the tour after missing most of the last two years recovering from Hodgkins lymphoma. But Kleybanova will be playing just her fourth match at the tour level this year, and is unlikely to be ready to beat a player as formidable or relentless as Puig. Puig could pose a very serious threat to Jankovic, as well, and beat Keys in straight sets this year at Roland Garros, their only meeting.

By seeding, whoever emerges from that hotly competitive section should face Sorana Cirstea, who was in the best form of her life in Toronto, upsetting Caroline Wozniacki, Jankovic, Kvitova, and Li to reach the Toronto final. Unfortunately then Cirstea withdrew from Cincinnati and retired from her first-round match in New Haven (after only three games) with an abdominal injury. It remains to be seen whether Cirstea will last for a whole match, let alone play as well as she did in Toronto. If Sorana falls, either underwhelming counterpuncher Alexandra Cadantu or one of the little-known qualifiers, Sharon Fichman or Kurumi Nara, will find herself facing a relative star in the third round of a slam.

Predicted fourth round: Li d. Puig
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Jankovic
Not to be counted out: Cirstea, Keys, Cetkovska

Wozniacki’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Wozniacki 6 8 4.1
Vinci 10 13 4.8
Vesnina 22 24 5.0
Zakopalova 31 30 6.8
Hsieh 40 0.8
Safarova 41 2.1
Knapp 55 7.6
Giorgi 136 9.0

No doubt glad to be back on the hard courts where she has had most of her success, Caroline Wozniacki continues to tinker with her game, working to improve her volleying skills and make her forehand something of a weapon from the baseline. Her improvement comes in fits and starts and it isn’t dramatic, but she looks more confident on court than she has in some time. She shouldn’t overlook her first-round opponent, qualifier Duan Ying-Ying, who has been moving up the rankings with consistent results mostly in ITF events. But Wozniacki should outclass her and advance without major trouble.

The same will be true in the second round, where Caro will face the winner of a match between two South African Chanel(le)s, Scheepers and Simmonds. Scheepers is the more established of the two on the professional tour, and occasionally pulls off a surprising upset. But 21-year-old Simmonds had a good run through qualifying, beating the experienced and powerful Nina Bratchikova and widely touted American 17-year-old Taylor Townsend.

In the third round Wozniacki could face a serious threat from inconsistent shotmaker Klara Zakopalova, who has had mostly good results on hard courts this year. But Wozniacki leads the head-to-head 3-0, and should have a mental edge.

Zakopalova said last week that she has a difficult first round opponent—Hsieh Su-Wei, against whom she has a 1-1 record. But Zakopalova is much better player than she was when she lost to Hsieh in 2008, while Hsieh hasn’t beaten a top-60 opponent since February.

Another player who could possibly trouble Zakopalova, in the second round, is Camila Giorgi. Giorgi never saw a ball she didn’t want to hit for a winner, and occasionally she hits most of them inside the court and tears up a draw, as she has at Wimbledon for two years straight.

Roberta Vinci has had mixed results on hard courts this year, but is much more of a threat on the surface than she was a few years ago, as she proved by upsetting Dominika Cibulkova and Aga Radwanska on her way to the US Open quarterfinals last year. Vinci shouldn’t have much trouble with the powerful but erratic Timea Babos in the first round.

The inconsistent but dangerous Lucie Safarova could pose a serious threat to Vinci in the second round. Vinci has never beaten Safarova on hard courts, but won their most recent match on clay, earlier this year in the high-pressure arena of Fed Cup. That should give Vinci an edge in confidence, an area where Safarova may be weak—she’s on a four-match losing streak that includes a 6-1, 6-0 loss to #190 Valeria Solovyeva last month. Indeed, Safarova could struggle in the first round against Lesia Tsurenko, who can be a tough fighter.

Vinci is much more likely to be upset by Elena Vesnina in the third round. Always a player with a strong serve and all-court skills, Vesnina has become much more confident and consistent this year, winning her first and second WTA singles titles in Hobart and Eastbourne. Vesnina has a 4-1 record against Vinci on hard courts. On the other hand, Vesnina doesn’t have an easy path to the third round herself, facing increasingly aggressive 19-year-old counterpuncher Annika Beck in the first round and most likely the resurgent and powerful shotmaker Karin Knapp in the second.

Predicted fourth round: Wozniacki d. Vesnina
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Zakopalova
Not to be counted out: Vinci, Safarova

Errani’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Errani 4 5 2.9
Kirilenko 14 17 2.9
Halep 21 19 13.6
Kuznetsova 27 29 2.1
Wickmayer 57 2.6
Watson 76 1.7
Pennetta 83 6.2

After a strong first half of the season, Sara Errani has not hit her stride on the summer hard courts, suffering early losses to doubles partner Vinci in Cincinnati and to Makarova in New Haven. She should have a fairly easy first round, however, against lucky loser Olivia Rogowska, who has a decent serve and is usually a good defender, but is not in Errani’s class.

Errani could face a much tougher test in the second round from compatriot Flavia Pennetta. Just two years ago Pennetta would have been the favorite, especially on a hard court. But Sara switched to a different racket for greater power and reach, and began approaching the net more aggressively, while Flavia underwent wrist surgery and lost much of her confidence and precision. Pennetta’s summer on hard courts has been worse than Errani’s, and she retired from her second-round qualifying match last week in New Haven with a lower back injury. Errani should emerge as the winner.

By seeding, in the third round Errani should face Svetlana Kuznetsova, a player she has never beaten on hard courts. But Kuznetsova hasn’t won a main-draw match since Roland Garros, and is likely to have her hands full facing Peng Shuai in the second round. Kuznetsova has a 3-2 hardcourt record against Peng, who hasn’t had a good summer either, but Peng won the last two matches. Peng also won her last three matches against Errani, though they haven’t played since Errani’s breakthrough last year.

Maria Kirilenko started the year very well, reaching the top 10 for the first time in her career. But she hasn’t regained that form since taking more than a month off after her recurring knee injury flared up at Wimbledon. She has a difficult first-round match against the powerful but more one-dimensional Yanina Wickmayer. The two have split their two previous matches, both this year, with Wickmayer winning the most recent match in Eastbourne. Since that match, however, Wickmayer is 1-6 in main-draw matches. If Kirilenko can keep her forehand under control and reach the net frequently, she should prevail.

The winner of that match should have a relatively easy second round against either qualifier Michelle Larcher de Brito or journeywoman Eleni Daniilidou. She’ll face a much more formidable threat in the third round from New Haven champion Simona Halep, the only player in this entire eighth who is indisputably in top form. Having never won a WTA title before this year, Halep now has four, more than any other player has won this year except Serena Williams. Halep has always been a quick defender, and has long had the ability to hit with surprising aggression. But over the last few months, she has found the confidence and timing to hit those shots at the right moments, and more reliably inside the lines.

Halep’s own path to the third round isn’t entirely easy. In the first round she faces Heather Watson, who at her best plays a similar style. But while Watson says her fitness has returned after a bout of mononucleosis early this year, her confidence has not, and it shows in her tentative play. Halep should beat Watson, and also up-and-coming 17-year-old Donna Vekic, her most likely second-round opponent.

Halep has never played Kirilenko. She has an 0-3 record against Wickmayer, and lost her only match against Errani, 6-1 6-0, this year in Miami. But all those matches came before Halep’s scintillating summer, and if she maintains her form she might start evening up those records.

Predicted fourth round: Halep d. Errani
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Kirilenko
Not to be counted out: Peng

Kvitova’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Kvitova 7 10 7.0
Stosur 11 11 5.1
Petrova 20 23 0.3
Barthel 28 34 4.4
Petkovic 46 10.0
Hantuchova 48 3.0
Riske 81 7.9
Glushko 128 7.4

Petra Kvitova’s mixed form continues, in which she reminds fans why she was marked two years ago as the next number-one, but only for a set or a match or two at a time. Her season took a positive turn when she reached the New Haven final last week—and then ran into the Halep juggernaut. Kvitova continues to struggle off and on with her asthma in humid conditions like those that dominate in New York.

Petra should have little trouble in the first round against Misaki Doi. She’s likely to have a much more difficult second-round match against Andrea Petkovic, a versatile and athletic fighter who has been steadily working her way back up the rankings since spring after a long series of injuries. Petkovic actually has a 4-3 record against Kvitova, but two of her victories came before Petra emerged as a star. The other two came in Toronto and Cincinnati in 2011—Kvitova’s first two tournaments after winning Wimbledon, when she was struggling to deal with her new notoriety as well as the American climate—so it’s difficult to know what the head-to-head means. Kvitova’s form isn’t spectacular this year, but she has superior firepower, and Petkovic has yet to beat a top-10 player in her latest comeback.

The winner of that match is most likely to face Mona Barthel in the third round. Barthel had a good victory over Kirilenko in Cincinnati, suggesting she may be finding some of the stellar form she started the year with, but it’s rather soon to tell for this streaky player. If Barthel can’t keep her aggressive groundstrokes inside the court, she could fall to counterpuncher Johanna Larsson in the first round, or grass-court-specialist Tsvetana Pironkova in the second. Or she could fall in the second round to perhaps the most dangerous of the three, the strong-serving all-court player Alison Riske. Riske is known mostly for her grass-court exploits, but this year has started stringing wins together on outdoor hard courts as well.

Sam Stosur should have an easy opening match against counterpunching 17-year-old qualifier Victoria Duval, who has been mentioned as a possible rising star but has yet to beat a top-60 player. Arguably she could be seriously tested in the second round by the skilled but inconsistent Daniela Hantuchova. But Stosur has won her last six matches against Hantuchova, who is just 2-6 since winning the Birmingham title early this summer.

By seeding, Stosur should meet Nadia Petrova in the third round. But Petrova has been off the tour since Wimbledon with a hip injury, and was already on a five-match losing streak before that. I have a sneaking suspicion Petrova could lose in the first round to aggressive Israeli qualifier Julia Glushko. Glushko has been steadily improving over the past year or so, had a strong run through qualifying (beating Zheng Saisai, Stephanie Dubois, and Anastasia Rodionova), and took a set from Stosur in Toronto. Another qualifier, experienced and powerful but inconsistent shotmaker Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, could also pose a danger to Petrova in the second round.

Predicted fourth round: Kvitova d. Stosur
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Petkovic
Not to be counted out: Barthel, Riske

Azarenka’s Eighth

Player Seeding Ranking Form Score
Azarenka 2 2 5.5
Ivanovic 13 15 3.2
Cibulkova 17 21 4.9
Cornet 26 28 5.6
Lepchenko 35 4.6
Svitolina 46 8.6
Goerges 45 1.9

Cincinnati champion Victoria Azarenka is back in form after her summer was interrupted by knee and back injuries, and should face little threat from Dinah Pfizenmaier in the first round. Pfizenmaier is a promising player, but her long strokes work best on clay. Vika could be tested more strenuously in the second round by former top-30 player Aleksandra Wozniak, who has already shown flashes of form in the two matches she has played this year, attempting to return from a shoulder injury. But it’s very early to expect Wozniak to be consistent enough to seriously threaten a player as complete as Vika.

Azarenka’s most likely third-round opponent is Alizé Cornet, who combines a fundamentally defensive game with significant power and touch. Cornet hasn’t stopped the on-court histrionics she has become known for in difficult matches, but this year she has done a better job keeping her emotions from affecting the outcome of matches. Still, Cornet can’t quite match Azarenka’s power, repertoire, or big-match toughness, and will have to play the match of her life or hope Vika has an off day in order to pull off an upset.

For most of this season Ana Ivanovic has shown improved confidence, added more variety to her game, and beaten players she is expected to beat. Still, her first-round loss to Cornet in Cincinnati could shake that confidence, and she could be tested by the streaky Anna Tatishvili in the first round. Tatishvili had good runs to qualify in both Toronto and Cincinnati, where seeds Jankovic and Kirilenko needed close three-set first-round matches to defeat her.

Most likely Ivanovic will prevail, and move on to the second round where she will face either Varvara Lepchenko or Alexandra Dulgheru. Dulgheru is a former top-30 player who is just beginning to find her way back to competitiveness at the tour level after knee surgery. Lepchenko has had decent but unremarkable results this season, shown a tendency toward erratic groundstrokes, and is at her best on clay. Either player is likely to make Ana work but ultimately unlikely to pose a serious threat.

Ivanovic’s most likely third-round opponent is Stanford champion Dominika Cibulkova, whose form has been patchy this season. Domi leads the head-to-head 2-1, but Ana won their most recent match in three sets, last month in Carlsbad.

If Cibulkova has an off-week, she could have her hands full in the first round against 18-year-old Elina Svitolina, who has burst into the top 50 with an incredible 16-2 streak over the last two months, winning a WTA title in Baku and a $75k ITF title in Donetsk. If Domi passes that test, she’s unlikely to have much trouble in the second round against one or two well-known but slumping players, Julia Goerges or Christina McHale. Goerges is 2-8 over her last ten matches; Mchale is 1-9.

Predicted fourth round: Azarenka d. Cibulkova
Third most likely to reach the fourth round: Ivanovic
Not to be counted out: Svitolina

Quarterfinal Predictions

S. Williams d. Flipkens
A. Radwanska d. Li
Halep d. Wozniacki
Azarenka d. Kvitova

Semifinal Predictions

S. Williams d. A. Radwanska
Azarenka d. Halep

Final Prediction

Both Williams and Azarenka have had physiological niggles and shown glimpses of vulnerability off and on in recent weeks, and neither looks like a sure bet to win the tournament, or even to stay fit for seven matches. But uneven matchups and opponents’ weaknesses make it seem pretty clear they’re the most likely finalists. And my gut tells me Serena is due for another upset. So I predict that, as she did in the Cincinnati final, Victoria Azarenka will defeat Serena Williams for the 2013 US Open title.

Roster of the Missing

Maria Sharapova withdrew with bursitis in her right shoulder.

Marion Bartoli abruptly retired from the sport after losing her opening-round match to Simona Halep two weeks ago in Cincinnati.

Romina Oprandi has been off the tour since Wimbledon with a shoulder injury.

Ayumi Morita withdrew yesterday, presumably due to the same lower back injury that caused her to retire from her first-round match last week in New Haven.

Garbiñe Muguruza is out for the rest of the year, after having surgery last month to correct an ankle disorder.

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More Doping Cases About to Emerge?

Even as the dust is still settling on Viktor Troicki’s suspension for refusing to take a blood test in April, a drumbeat of indistinct indications suggests more and bigger doping cases involving tennis players could dog the sport starting any day now. Here’s my understanding of the current status of two such potential scandals.

Croatian Media Reports That Cilic Tested Positive

Multiple Croatian media outlets reported on Friday that Marin Cilic tested positive for an unknown banned substance during the Munich tournament in May. Thanks to Amy Fetherolf and Mateja Vidakovic, there is an English translation of the most thorough of the Croatian articles posted at The Changeover. According to the stories, Cilic found out about the positive test before his second-round match against Kenny De Schepper at Wimbledon. As a gesture of cooperation with the International Tennis Federation and to avoid potential forfeiture of further results, he then withdrew from Wimbledon, informing the tournament that he had a knee injury. He hasn’t played since. Tennis.com’s Matt Cronin has tentatively confirmed the story through his own unnamed source. The ITF has declined to comment on the reports, saying it only issues statements on doping cases when investigations are complete and players are found guilty. Cilic is currently #15 in the world and has been ranked as high as #9. If the reports are true and Cilic is found guilty, he would be the highest-ranked player caught for a doping offense since Martina Hingis in 2008.

There are, however, quite a few problems with the story as it is currently being reported. Cilic is said to have run out of his usual glucose supplement in Munich, and sent a team member to buy some at a pharmacy. Supposedly the package that supplement came in warned professional athletes against using it, but Cilic didn’t read the warning. Glucose (also known as dextrose) is a simple sugar, naturally produced as the human body digests other sugars and starches, and a common ingredient in sports drinks and many other food products. It is not a banned substance, nor would it by itself cause an athlete to test positive for a banned substance. It’s unclear why any product a professional athlete could reasonably mistake for an ordinary glucose supplement would contain any banned substances.

According to the stories, Cilic hopes to play Montreal, slightly more than a week from now. Such hopes are said to be based on a theory that he might receive a three-month suspension dating back to his allegedly positive test at the beginning of May. Such a suspension would be half as long as any other suspension issued under similar circumstances by the ITF-led unified Anti-Doping Program since it was established in 2007. Also, the fact that Cilic has supposedly discussed his still-pending case with media outlets in his home country hardly contributes to the sort of cooperative attitude that might convince an ITF tribunal to be so lenient.

Will the Biogenesis Scandal Implicate More Tennis Players?

Monday’s suspension of baseball player Ryan Braun has drawn renewed attention to Biogenesis of America, a Miami-based clinic led by Anthony Bosch and believed to have sold doping agents to Braun and many other professional athletes until it closed late last year. As the Miami New Times reported in January, company documents suggest that one of those athletes was tennis player Wayne Odesnik, who was suspended for a year by the ITF after he was caught illegally transporting human growth hormone (HGH) into Australia in 2010. Porter Fischer, the former Biogenesis employee who leaked the documents to the New Times, said this week that many professional athletes the company supplied with doping agents had yet to be named, and that tennis was one of the sports involved. However, it’s unclear whether any tennis players besides Odesnik might be implicated, or whether even Odesnik’s alleged connection with the company continued after 2010.

Odesnik has denied in various ways that he has been connected with Biogenesis, but his statements are inconsistent with each other. After the New Times reported in January that Biogenesis documents showed the company billed Odesnik $500 per month, Odesnik wrote in an email:

I have never previously, nor currently, been a client of Mr. Bosch. The copy of the records that were provided do not show any amount paid to Mr. Bosch or to his clinic. These accusations are completely untrue. I have never paid any money, or any monthly fees, to Mr. Bosch. I have never bought any drugs from Mr. Bosch. I have never purchased HGH, nor any other illegal/banned substances from any person, including Mr. Bosch.

Yet after being caught in possession of HGH in 2010, Odesnik told the ITF that, in their words, “he had purchased the human Growth Hormone on professional advice to treat a recurring injury”.

This March when interviewed by Ben Rothenberg for the New York Times, Odesnik seemed unsure whether to say he was never involved with Biogenesis or that his involvement ended in 2010:

I have no idea what that was about… They had called me, and I said I had no idea what that was about. They probably saw my name from three years ago and thought that they’d put my name in something. And yeah, I had nothing to do with it.

Last month, Odesnik told the Associated Press that the Biogenesis documents that implicated him were “erroneous”, continuing that “None of that’s true… I don’t have any connection to it.”

It’s unclear whether we’ll ever find out if any other tennis players had improper connections to Biogenesis. The ITF refuses to comment on whether it is investigating the company or cooperating with Major League Baseball’s investigation. And Fischer told the AP’s Tim Reynolds that after aiding MLB’s investigation, he was “very, very wary” of cooperating with the governing bodies of other sports, implying that he had endured verbal assaults from baseball players and fans and “goons at [his] door”.

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