If you think Novak Djokovic moves quickly on the tennis court, you should see him backpedalling. Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported that Djokovic had been spending time in a pressurized egg.
While the egg looks like a Lady Gaga stage prop, it has a more practical use. Made by CVAC systems, the CVAC pod simulates high altitude and compresses muscles in intervals. The Journal hailed the egg as Djokovic's "secret weapon," adding, as the article notes: "The company claims that spending up to 20 minutes in the pod three times a week can boost athletic performance by improving circulation, boosting oxygen-rich red-blood cells, removing lactic acid and possibly even stimulating mitochondrial biogenesis and stem-cell production."
Djokovic, though, was having none of it. "Well, all I can say is that I have used it a couple of times last year and I haven't used it since. You know it's very interesting technology, but I don't know the effect of it." Djokovic was then pushed on the story's assertion that he used the egg for the past couple of days. "Well, it would be great if that machine can fly wherever I am playing." Pressed a third time, he said. "I haven't used it this year because I'm really not intending to change my routines."
Today, after winning his first match (showing no ill effects of the shoulder injury), he was more adamant. "I'm going to repeat it for the last time: It doesn't have any influence on my success."
Djokovic's reluctance to discuss the topic was understandable. Percolating not far beneath the surface was the indelicate issue of cheating. Was this "secret weapon" not smudging the line between innovation and unfair advantage?
One player described the egg as "sketchy." (Asked to expand on that, he declined.) And the timing couldn't have been worse. Players here are smarting over the recent ban of Robert Kendrick, an American veteran clipped for using anti-jetlag medicine that contained a substance on the banned list. Though both investigators and Court of Arbitration for Sport believed Kendrick's contention that it was an inadvertent error and he was not seeking a competitive advantage, he was banned for eight months, including the U.S. Open. Now here comes another player using a device to boost red blood cells?
Let's be clear that we're not accusing Djokovic of cheating. But does the Pod fall inside or outside anti-doping protocol? With an assist to reader Elena Gordon: here are the prohibitions according to the World Anti-Doping Association:
M1. ENHANCEMENT OF OXYGEN TRANSFER
The following are prohibited:
1. Blood doping, including the use of autologous, homologous or heterologous blood or red blood cell products of any origin.
2. Artificially enhancing the uptake, transport or delivery of oxygen, including, but not limited to, perfluorochemicals, efaproxiral (RSR13) and modified haemoglobin products (e.g. haemoglobin-based blood substitutes, microencapsulated haemoglobin products), excluding supplemental oxygen.
We put the question to Stuart Miller, the ITF's Executive Director of the Science & Technical Department. Via email, he writes: "The Tennis Anti-Doping Programme adheres to the WADA Prohibited List, so this is really a question for WADA. Enhancement of oxygen transfer is a prohibited method under section M1 of the Prohibited List, but as yet hypoxic tents (which reduce the amount of available oxygen) and CVAC pods have not been added to it. I haven't seen any research relating to the CVAC pod, so I'm not in a position to comment on how (well) it works. Furthermore, the question is complicated because a similar effect can be gained by training and/or living at altitude (which is essentially impossible to ban). Of course, there's also the practical question of how any such ban could be enforced. So, it seems there are as many questions as answers, and it's hard to see these type of devices being banned in the near future."
One side will contend that the pod is little different from the banned performance-enhancing drug EPO which also boosts red blood cells. The other side will contend that the pod is little different from altitude training. It's also worth pointing out that runners and cyclists have been using hypobaric chambers that went the opposite direction, to simulate less oxygen and stimulate their own body to produce more hemoglobin. Governing bodies considered banning them as too similar to EPO, but did not.
It's an interesting issue, one that highlights -- and puts in bold and italics -- the shortcomings of anti-doping and just how problematic the protocol sometimes can be. As for Djokovic specifically, it's a bit of a moot point, especially given his claim that he hasn't been "hatched" this year. In no way does it overshadow his achievements in 2011. But as far as being a celebrity spokesman goes, surely he's more comfortable espousing the virtues of going gluten-free. No controversy there.
What?! I just asked you about that "cryo" technology the Dallas Mavericks used in order to feel rejuvenated and the Djoker comes out with this egg ... Can he invite my Roger over for a few sessions? -- Rosalinda Reyes, Freeport
• Indeed, mere days before we learned of Djokovic and his "egg", Rosalinda asked about the Mavs using a similar technology. I note this a) to give her the credit she deserves and B) to re-emphasize that this is not an issue specific to Djokovic but rather an issue that all sports will confront.
If Novak doesn't win the U.S. Open, do you think the tennis community will have even more appreciation for Federer's greatness? Novak is trying to win his third grand slam in one year, an achievement that Federer has achieved an amazing three times. Federer has so many records that are seemingly untouchable and this is another one. -- Gregory Mathews, Milwaukee
• Very good. Another angle: does Djokovic's current mastery over Nadal inadvertently boost Federer's GOAT candidacy? Discuss.
Is Serena constantly acting on bad PR advice or is she just bad at lying? Yesterday, when a reporter wanted to know if she'd reflected upon her famous outburst at the Open, Serena pretended she needed a reminder ("You mean in the singles or doubles?"). And then she called it "awesome". Here's the exact quote from Serena: "I don't know, I just remember I lost, and that was that. And then, I got really popular; a lot of people were telling me, "Oh, it was super cool, [laughs] and that they'd never seen me so intense. So, yeah, it was awesome." -- Catherine Boyd, New York City
• Tons of you wrote in about this. For those who missed it, yes, Serena characterized her previous U.S. Open singles match -- the one in which was defaulted after profanely threatening to choke an official via a tennis ball -- as "supercool." There's a "Saturday Night Live" skit here. "Serena's Williams Public Relations Workshop."
Again, here's where I think you have to stand. A) She doesn't care what you think. B) If you're looking for her to say and do the right things, you'll be disappointed. (Even her most ardent fans have to cringe when she is so casual and cavalier about such an ambiguously awful moment.) C) If you're looking for her to lose, you'll be disappointed. (Even her most ardent detractors have to admit that she is a peerless competitor.)
It's a pity that she can't combine her relentless winning with her sister's relentless dignity. Here's a suggestion from Steve Robinson of Brooklyn, NY: Instead of complaining about Serena and Wozniacki's polar-opposite schedules, why not appreciate them for what they do best? Serena is a grand slam champion and Wozniacki's focused on the second tier events. Combine them into one player and you get a complete package. So, its quite simple -- Serena & Wozniacki ought to form a merged fan club -- that way, their fans can root for one at the slams and for the other at the non-slams. Are you ready to join the Wozrena fan club?!
I'm a new retiree. Number 1 on my bucket list is to see Roger Federer and Serena Williams, among many others, play tennis. I have never attended a tennis major before. Will be in NY Sept 3-8. What tickets should I purchase? I would like to really see these two players, as closely as I can afford. Are tickets sold for the entire day or for each match?! I've read your hints, however, I need specific information. I really need your help! THANKS -- Lourdes Landrum, New Orleans
• First, congrats on the retirement. I'd hate to steer you wrong here. And schedules -- especially when there's no roof -- are naughty by nature. But consider this: CBS pays the biggest rights fee here, and as a result, has some sway over scheduling. Naturally, they want the players who will generate the best ratings. So I suspect both Federer and Serena will figure prominently during the day sessions of Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Good luck!
Can you give me ANY dark horses or sleepers on the men's side. It's like no one is even taking anyone seriously outside the top three? -- John C., New Jersey
• To repeat the most ridiculous/underrated stat in tennis today, one of the Big Three has won every Slam, save one, since February of 2005. That's 25 of the last 26 majors. No wonder we're focused on them, no? I suppose the other contenders would include Murray, Tsonga, Berdych and Fish. The notion of a John Isner or Kevin Anderson serving himself to the second week is always there. When it comes to sleepers, the women are narcoleptics and the men are insomniacs.
• Big opportunity for Donald Young against Stan Wawrinka.
• Ryan Harrison may be out of the tournament but he's on Grantland. Nice piece from Reeves Wiedeman.
• Alvaro from Madrid notes: Richard Gasquet is marvelous to watch on an intimate court. He has flair to burn, but today what impressed were his constant forward impetus, his fearlessness and his footwork (an aside: Gasquet foot faulted often, just scraping the baseline with his left toe as he sprung towards the ball. But the calls from the line judge were rare: only two in the course of a three-setter, and never at delicate moments). Always expressive, and in a seemingly constant tussle with his own lofty standards, Gasquet whirled about the court with a flaming rapier in his hand, pasting winners off both wings and quickly seeking the same ball to use again after each point won. He's an artist, sure, but he paints with a fiery brush.
• Billie Jean King is joining the Arthritis Foundation, the Ad Council and United States Tennis Association (USTA) to launch a new public service campaign to fight arthritis -- the leading cause of disability in America.
• The USTA announced today a further expansion of its environmental initiatives at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, home of the US Open, which annually hosts more than 700,000 fans during the two weeks of the event. Alec Baldwin and Billie Jean King will continue to serve as the US Open's Green Initiatives spokespersons in a comprehensive awareness campaign to promote environmental consciousness among fans.
• Someone sent me a link of Mary Carillo calling Ryan Harrison "Crankypants." Ouch.
Samuel of Cambridge, MA: Long lost siblings: Jelena Dokic and Ksenia Pervak.