Sin, sinner and the ATP

The cover image of Agassi’s book.-AP

Andre Agassi’s candid confession that he used drugs has sent the tennis fraternity into a spin, with a shadow being cast on the integrity of a champion hitherto hailed as the embodiment of a well-rounded tennis personality. Steroid/stimulant usage by sportspersons is nothing new. Maybe it’s the pressure of the job, or the loss of their wonder years to courts and gymnasiums that gravitates them to drugs like hair to a plughole, writes Kunal Diwan.

The origin of the urge to alter one’s state of consciousness coincided with the evolution of the brain’s pleasure centres and reward networks. Once the basic requirements of food and shelter, survival and reproduction, were dealt with, people across the world, in response to some strange internal calling, burned leaves, fermented whole grain, endured insect bites and experimented with chemicals — all with the intent of transforming their plane of mental and physical functioning.

Epidemiological studies indicate that the trait for substance abuse or a susceptibility to it has been strewn around the common genepool, which half explains why sportspersons, supreme physical beings though they might be, are as vulnerable as anybody else to developing a fancy for the dirty stuff.

It is also likely that in the mid-to-late 1990s, when faced with an acute crisis of personal and professional doubt, Andre Agassi staggered into a mortal morass between perception and reality, and decided to toss in a few crystal-worth’s to crank the engine up.

One of Agassi’s autobiographical avowals in “Open” (Out on Knopf Doubleday Publishing) is constituted around how the eight-Slam winner developed a sinister fondness for crystal meth — a powerful sympathomimetic therapeutically used in children with short attention spans, and abused for its euphoric potential — and how he was acquitted by the ATP after failing a drug test when he admitted he had accidentally “sipped from a friend’s spiked soda”.

The candid confession has sent the tennis fraternity into a spin, with a shadow being cast on the integrity of a champion hitherto hailed as the embodiment of a well-rounded tennis personality. The ATP’s waiver of his technical offence has also met with disapproval from players past and contemporary, fear from the World Anti Doping Association on the prevalence and frequency of such hush-hush exonerations, and analysis by business gurus of the beating Brand Agassi would have taken had this dalliance with crystal meth been disclosed during his playing days.

A fuming Rafael Nadal, who has frequently expressed displeasure at the extensive testing measures in place, commented on the BBC: “If they (ATP) covered for the player and punished others for doing the same kind of thing, then that would seem to me to be a lack of respect for all sportsmen.”

And the ATP has surely been a little inconsistent in dealing with the issue of banned substances, the list of which weighs both performance enhancers and recreational drugs in the same uncalibrated balance.

A decade ago, the rake-thin Czech, Petr Korda, got away from a year’s ban after testing positive for steroids a few months after his Australian Open win.

Streaks of nandrolone detected in Greg Rusdeski’s blood in 2004 were given a pass when the ATP realised the source of the offending metabolites may have been electrolyte pills handed out by its own trainers. Argentinian Mariana Puerta was banned twice, in 2003 and 2005, both times the tenure of the ban reduced after the Association bought his ‘I’m on therapeutic medication’ defence.

Steroid/stimulant usage by sportspersons is nothing new. Maybe it’s the pressure of the job, or the loss of their wonder years to courts and gymnasiums that gravitates them to drugs like hair to a plughole. Diego Maradona, Michael Phelps, Martina Hingis, Pieter de Villiers, Matt Stevens and, now, Agassi are all perpetuators of the infamous legacy of George Best and Paul Gascoigne, largely because their choice of poison, far from enhancing performance, was directly violative of the wholesome, healthy lifestyle one associates with someone whose career depends on a certain level of holistic fitness.

John McKetown, Harley Street addictions counsellor and psychotherapist, commented in the ‘Independent’: “There is perhaps the element of needing that sense of being on a high. Consciously or unconsciously, there’s this need to retrieve the buzz that one gets winning on the court.

“Also, sport can be very regimented — often too regimented — so to take drugs or drink too much alcohol can be a way of escaping it for a time.” Now, Agassi tripping over his sorrows in the depths of his darkest hour in 1997 — domestic distress, plummeting ranking, you get the picture — is not altogether a surprise.

A failing first marriage, professional downtime in Los Angeles, a few million in the bank and platters of white powder on warm mahogany do seem, if you give that imagination of yours a stretch, logical extensions of each other, multi-enforced as they have been on us lapping observers — and, in a country-cousin way, participants — of the Western modern condition.

However, it is another no-frills insight by Agassi that indicates the scruffy American’s makeover into a careworn-yet-complete tennis player was not all that different from horrifying accounts of young girls belt-whipped on to the court by their prototype, pushy tennis parents.

Saying he “hated tennis with a dark and secret passion” and calling his father Mike (who once pulled a gun on a fellow motorist) “violent by nature”, Agassi explained, in part, why he had dug up the past and raised a cloud of speculation over his clean credentials.

“I think I had to learn a lot about myself through the (writing) process,” he said, “there was a lot that even surprised me. Whatever revelations exist, you’ll get to see in full glory… my hope is that somebody doesn’t just learn more about me and what it is I’ve been through, but somehow through those lessons, learns a lot about themselves.”

Perhaps the most surprising response to Agassi’s disclosure came from Boris Becker, the Wimbledon darling who once, allegedly, fathered a child in an abbreviated, broom-closet encounter.

“Saddened”, the German said: “I’m not one to throw stones, but this is probably the most shocking thing I’ve heard in tennis.”

The matter, Becker insinuated, would have “implications” for men’s tennis, because “Andre didn’t just take drugs, he also tested positive and then got away with it. If it had been made public in 1997, his career, and his life, would have been very different.”

While Boom Boom has a point, besmirching Agassi’s post-detection achievements in the light of his confession seems a little far-fetched. Undeniably, the ATP goofed up, but implying that the three-month ban that he never received would have thrown the American’s career resurrection plans out of gear bases itself on too many presuppositions, too many variables.

Even after taking into account the improbability of Andre’s drug habit enhancing his game in any manner (Crystal Meth? Performance enhancer? Come on, the fellow was losing left, right and centre in 1997!), the ATP’s act of leniency doesn’t appear congruous with the line it had toed then, and has been toeing since. Maybe it’s time the Association got in line about its policy on doing lines. Get it?

Here’s why. A man lying through his teeth to save his skin is quite the norm. A governing body patting him on the back and letting him off is not. And therein lies the point of distress.

Dick Pound, former WADA head, summed it up perfectly. “The fact that one of the stars acknowledged that it is simple to beat the system tells you everything you need to know.”

* * * Steroid offenders

Sesil Karatantcheva (Kazakhstan/ Bulgaria): Tested positive for nandralone at 16. Banned for two years. Highest ranking: 35 in 2005. Best result: Quarterfinalist at 2005 French Open.

Juan Ignacio Chela (Argentina): Tested positive for methyltestosterone in 2001. Three-month suspension and $8,000 fine. Highest ranking: 20 in 2007. Still active.

Guillermo Coria (Argentina): Seven-month suspension in 2001 for nandralone. Best result: French Open runner-up in 2004. Highest ranking: 3. Retired.

Those that got away: Greg Rusedski, Petr Korda, Bohdan Ulihrach.

Other offenders

Mariano Puerta (Argentina): Twice banned. In 2003 (nine months, clenbuterol) and 2005 (two years, etilefrine). Claimed on the latter occasion drug had entered him when he sipped from his wife’s glass, who was on medication.

Ivo Minar (Czech Republic): Tested positive for methylhexanamine following a Davis Cup match. Banned for eight months.

Recreational drug offenders

Richard Gasquet (France): Escaped a possible two-year ban earlier in 2009 after saying the cocaine in his system came from snogging a waitress at a bar.

Jennifer Capriati (America): Arrested for marijuana possession in 1994.

Martina Hingis (Switzerland): Banned for two years in 2007, denied cocaine use saying she would be “terrified of taking drugs”.