Simona Halep: “I just ask to be judged: how much longer is this going to take?”

In an exclusive interview with Tennis Majors, Halep expresses her frustration at the length of time it is taking for her to receive a hearing into her failed drugs test

Simona Halep, April 2023 © Tennis Majors

Simona Halep has been provisionally suspended since October 2022 after it was announced that she had tested positive for the banned substance roxadustat. In this interview with Tennis Majors, the two-time major champion and former world No 1 says she has evidence to prove her innocence but that she has so far been denied her right to be heard by an independent court. She hopes her hearing will take place at the end of May.

Tennis Majors met with Simona Halep in person at the beginning of this week, as the Romanian champion was ready to provide an update on her situation, more than six months after her provisional suspension for testing positive for the banned substance roxadustat. All the facts Simona Halep discusses in this interview have been fact-checked by Tennis Majors. Her legal team was also able to confirm that Halep’s statement during our interview was accurate.

Editor’s note on the authorities mentioned by Simona Halep during the interview : Halep identified the ITF (International Tennis Federation) as the authority in charge of her case, instead of the ITIA (International Tennis Integrity Agency), a new entity created in 2022 by the professional tennis governing bodies (ITF included), now in charge of the tennis antidoping program, in the place of the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU), a panel once created by the ITF. Tennis Majors tried to reach both the ITF and the ITIA before the release of this article, but only received a proper response after the release. Then, a spokesperson for the International Tennis Integrity Agency (ITIA), said: “The process is ongoing and is being run in line with the World Anti-Doping Code.” The International Tennis Federation (ITF) said it was not in a position to comment and insisted on the fact that the ITIA was in charge. Asked after the release of the article why Halep referred to the ITF, her lawyer Howard Jacobs responded : “There is no discernible difference in the way anti-doping cases are handled since ITIA “took over” from ITF – the same lawyers prosecute the cases, all documents are submitted through the same exact online Portal, it is the exact same pool of arbitrators, and the arbitrations are administered by the same exact agency – Sport Resolutions – which still as of today states on its website that tennis anti-doping cases are decided by “the ITF Independent Tribunal”.”

Simona, our first question is obvious. How are you?

Simona Halep: I don’t really know how I am because the situation has been really hard. Emotionally, it’s heavy. The stress is huge because I never thought I would face something like this. I have always been against doping, as I am a big supporter of clean sports. So at the beginning, I didn’t know how to handle it . Over time I just tried to stay calm and actually, I feel confident because I know I’m clean and I didn’t take anything knowingly that is banned. I mean: a bad substance. It makes me feel a little bit better but I’m trying to handle it as much as possible.

Why did you accept an interview today? We haven’t heard from you since your message on social media in October 2022. Why are you happy to talk today?

Simona Halep: I wanted to stay silent until the case would be solved. I didn’t want to get out and talk because it was very emotional. And actually, as I said, I couldn’t handle it very well. But now I feel the need to speak out loud to my supporters, my fans, and to the public because I am sure they really want to know why it’s taking so long and I really felt the need to do that. That’s why I am here today.

The case is not solved, as you just mentioned. Have you ever knowingly taken roxadustat or any banned substances?

Simona Halep : Knowingly, I have not taken any banned substance. I am a big supporter of clean sports and have always been against doping.

What was your reaction when you tested positive?

Simona Halep : It was a shock. I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t know what roxadustat was. I’ve never heard about it before. I went online a little bit to find out something about it. I understood it was a big banned substance.

The experts (I retained) have worked a lot to find the reason of this contamination and they found out that the supplement was contaminated with a very low quantity of substance.

Simona Halep

Do you know how this substance could have entered your body, could you understand why?

Simona Halep : I’ve always been careful to check all the components from the supplements (she takes) to make sure that everything is authorised. I had no clue at the beginning about where this substance came from. And then I just wanted to ask the experts (that she has retained, [editor’s note]) to explain to me how this happened and where it was coming from. As I said, I had never heard about it so I didn’t know how I could take it, and actually how it could be in my urine. After a lot of work, they found out that there was a contamination, a supplement contamination, and that’s why the quantity was so so low in my body. A contamination is when someone takes an authorised supplement, but the company who sells it makes a mistake, and there’s a very low quantity of substance that should not be in there. The experts have worked a lot to find the reason of this contamination and they found out that the supplement was contaminated with a very low quantity of substance.

Simona Halep, april 2023
Simona Halep | © Tennis Majors

Who are the experts you are mentioning?

Simona Halep : I cannot disclose the names of the experts yet but they are both extremely experienced, and each of them independently found that the supplement was contaminated with roxadustat.

Does the authority in charge [see editor’s note at the bottom of the page] agree with this?

Simona Halep : I have sent the evidence to the [ITIA] and they denied it. I sent it in December when we first worked on it. The [ITIA] denied it and we are still going through it. Since the [ITIA] denied it, the only chance this case has to be solved is to go to the tribunal to have a hearing about my case, and present all the evidence that my positive test was contaminated [Editor’s note: When Simona Halep mentions “the Tribunal” she asks to be judged by, she mentions the “independent panel” referred to in article 8.2 of the Tennis Anti Doping Rule published by the ITIA, in charge of the ITF and tennis governing bodies antidoping program]. I sent all the results in December to the ITIA to show that there was a contamination in my sample but they denied it. I was looking for it every day. I had a big hope that I could go to the tribunal to have a hearing and then I would know if I could play Indian Wells or not. (A) hearing on February 28th didn’t happen because the [ITIA] requested more time to do additional testing. Even if I was looking through that, the hearing was postponed to March 24th. The [ITIA] requested that the hearing on March 24th should be cancelled. I did not agree with that because as the rule says, a player that is provisionally suspended is entitled to get an expedited hearing. Everything takes so long. I asked the [ITIA] to lift my sanction to be able to play but they also refused it.

I believe that it’s not fair to spend eight months without even being judged by the Tribunal.

Simona Halep

Have you been tested at all since you tested positive? What were the results of those tests?

Simona Halep : I was notified in October that my urine test in August was positive. Since then, I’ve had 10 tests in a row and all of them were negative, and it was blood and urine at the same time.

What is the next step?

Simona Halep : The next step is a hearing at the end of May, but it is very fragile because the [ITIA] said that they might cancel it as well. If they do that, it will be almost eight months since I’ve been provisionally suspended for the first time and I believe that it’s not fair to spend eight months without even being judged by the Tribunal. Emotionally, the whole period has not been easy and I just felt the need to speak out loud to my fans, to my supporters, and actually to the whole public. I’m sure they really want to know what’s going on and why it’s taking so long. I wanted to remain silent until the case was solved but it’s too heavy, so I felt that it would be really good for me to speak about it out loud.

Why has your case taken so long?

Simona Halep : It’s been seven months since I’ve been originally suspended even though I’ve had all the evidence since December. I’m not asking for special treatment. I just ask to be judged. How much longer is this going to take?

How did you react when you heard that a big number of people, more than usual in these cases obviously, stated that they didn’t believe you could have taken a prohibited substance?

Simona Halep : I felt the support from the people, my fans, and actually from everyone. I feel that they don’t believe that I knowingly took something that is banned. It made me feel stronger to come back and work harder to get back to the level that I was at before, and even higher. I’m working on that. I really want to come back to tennis and play at the highest level. They really (understood) my personality and the way I am. It makes me really happy and gives me power to fight for the truth and come back to tennis. Until now, this is the hardest battle I’ve faced in my life and career. I received the letter from the [ITIA] telling me that I’ve been tested positive with an extreme low quantity of roxadustat. The first thing I did was text Patrick (Mouratoglou), my coach [co-founder of Tennis Majors], to ask him if I understood correctly that my urine test was positive. From this moment, I could count on his help. Because he was next to me during every step, we could find the truth.

How do you see your future in tennis, if the case is solved in a sense that allows you to be back on the Tour?

Simona Halep : I really want to play again because I love this sport and I want to play for the big titles again. I have worked all my life for this. I kept playing (during the suspension) because I had hope that the case would be solved. I’ve had many delays. It wasn’t easy to stay focused but I did my best and I stayed as focused as possible to work and to practice as much as possible. Until now, tennis has always been my life. I feel that I want to do it again when I come back. I want to be as strong as I was before, even more if it’s possible. I’m working for that and I know I’m going to struggle because it will be almost eight months without playing an official match and all the pressure there was about this case. I strongly believe that if I work hard, I can play at the highest level again.

Are you counting the days or do you try to avoid it?

Simona Halep : At this age (31), it’s really tough to lose days, weeks, and months. You are scared about the injuries. When you don’t have official matches, it is more risky. When time passes like this, it is harder to come back (Editor’s note: Halep is now world No 26 and she was in the top 10 when she was provisionally suspended).

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