Tennis player Madison Brengle filed a lawsuit in Manatee County, Florida, circuit court Monday afternoon against the Women’s Tennis Association and the International Tennis Federation...
Brengle, 28, said the defendants acted with disregard for her well-being by subjecting her to vein-penetrating blood drawings for anti-doping tests, despite her having a medical condition that causes extreme pain when a needle is inserted into her arm.
The ITF said in a statement the federation was aware of Brengle’s accusations, but had not yet been served with the lawsuit and would not comment on it. The WTA did not respond to a request for comment.
The pain from three mandatory blood tests before Grand Slam events in 2016 has lingered, Brengle said, leaving her with damage to her right arm that has affected her serve.
Months after the last of her 2016 drug tests, Brengle was found to have complex regional pain syndrome induced by venipuncture.
In a statement, Brengle’s lawyer, Peter R. Ginsberg, said his client had endured “prolonged mistreatment at the hands of the giants in women’s professional tennis” and filed the suit “seeking protection from their abusive administration of the anti-doping program.”
According to the complaint, Brengle is seeking damages in excess of $10 million. She has won $2.2 million in prize money during her career.
In an interview last week before her lawsuit was filed, Brengle said that intense reactions to venipuncture have been an issue in her family for generations. She said that when her grandmother was in a coma after suffering a stroke, she screamed when a nurse inserted a needle into her arm.
She said she did not have issues with immunizations or other injections until she had intravenous sedation when having her wisdom teeth removed at 17.
“It felt like my arm was getting cut off,” she said. “I’m screaming in pain, because I wasn’t expecting that.”
“It’s lightning, it’s acid pouring into your skin,” she said of the pain.
Brengle had her first anti-doping blood test at the Wimbledon qualifying tournament in 2009. She said that the phlebotomist missed the vein in her left arm twice, and that her vein collapsed on the third try.
“I hit the floor,” Brengle said. “I passed out from the pain.”
She was not given another blood test until 2016, before the Australian Open. Worried the swelling and pain would leave her unable to play in the tournament, where she had reached the fourth round the year before, Brengle had the test moved up several days. She recovered and reached the third round before losing to the eventual champion Angelique Kerber.
Brengle said she had a panic attack before her next test at Wimbledon, but thought it might be better if the blood was drawn from her foot.
“I still fully didn’t understand my condition,” she said. “And I was so desperate to be OK.”
Brengle said that when she had “a very visible panic attack,” Snowball suggested the testers “put a blindfold on her.”
“To a person who is having a panic attack, to threaten to blindfold them, that’s like Guantánamo Bay stuff,” Brengle said through tears.
Rather than showing sympathy, she said, anti-doping authorities have responded with threats to punish her for uncooperative behavior.
After the blood was drawn, Brengle’s right foot badly swelled and bruised, which she documented with photos. Her next blood test, at the U.S. Open, caused such swelling in her arm that she was forced to retire from her first-round match. Her hand still swells and burns, she said, and she cannot feel her middle, ring or pinkie fingers.
“This is the test my body never recovered from,” Brengle said. “This is the one that changed my career, changed my life, more than you can know.”
Later that fall, Brengle was given a diagnosis of CRPS. Though her suit contends that the defendants were “knowing and ignoring that she suffers from a rare medically-diagnosed physical condition,” it does not seem that she underwent any blood tests after her diagnosis, which was verified by an ITF-picked doctor.
In Brengle’s complaint she said she received an agreement from Miller last August on behalf of the ITF and anti-doping agencies to give her “a one-year conditional exemption from venipuncture blood testing after years of Brengle’s pleas and requests.”
Brengle wants to extend that exemption for the remainder of her career. In the closing of the complaint she filed Monday, Brengle seeks “entry of a Permanent Injunction restraining Defendants from performing and threatening to perform a venipuncture blood test” on her.
Brengle’s serve was never a primary weapon for her, but it has gotten much weaker of late.
According to Tennis Abstract, from the start of the 2015 until the 2016 U.S. Open, Brengle hit at least one ace in 48 of 72 tracked matches (66.6 percent) and won less than 50 percent of first-serve points only 10 times (13.9 percent). Since then, she has hit an ace in just eight of 61 tracked matches (13.1 percent) and has won less than 50 percent of first serves 17 times (27.9 percent). Her serve speed has also dipped.
She has kept her ranking inside the top 100, but she has never re-entered the top 50, where she was ranked before the 2016 U.S. Open.
Despite her diminished serve and preoccupying pain, Brengle, a clever counterpuncher, has managed several upset victories since her diagnosis. In January of last year, she beat Serena Williams on a windswept day in Auckland. Six months later, Brengle defeated Petra Kvitova at Wimbledon, where Kvitova is a two-time champion.
“The doctors, they kept asking me: ‘How do you still play professional tennis?'” Brengle said. “They don’t see a professional athlete with this disease, because it should shut you down.”
Before the lawsuit was filed, Miller would not comment on Brengle’s specific circumstances. He said some modifications were allowed in testing to make it more comfortable, including narrower needles or having the athlete lie down instead of sitting upright.
“The questions are always: What can you do to alleviate the burden of any issues a player may have while still having them comply with their obligations as a tennis player to comply with the anti-doping program?” Miller said.
Brengle said she suggested alternative methods, including a suction device that pulls blood from capillaries through the skin, but Miller said that only blood from the veins had been validated for sample collection.
Blood tests have increased steadily in recent years in tennis in part because of the sport’s biological passport program, which seeks to establish baseline levels for athletes that can be tracked over time.
“You can’t have a robust anti-doping program without collecting blood samples, because they provide additional detection methodologies that urine samples alone won’t,” Miller said.”
In 2013, the Serbian player Viktor Troicki was given an 18-month ban, which was later educed to 12 months, for declining a blood test at a tournament. Troicki said that he thought he could return to give the blood sample the next day without penalty.
Brengle, currently ranked 83rd, said that if she were ever forced to undergo another vein-puncturing blood test, she would retire from the sport instead.
“It would break my heart, but my health is too important,” she said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.