A Short History of Drugs in Tennis
by Michael Mewshaw
The bizarre saga of Richard Gasquet and his conviction for cocaine use grows, as they say in Alice in Wonderland, “curious and curiouser.” To outline the zigzag course of events for those trying to unpack this peculiar story — the Frenchman tested positive in March ‘09 at the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami. His immediate reaction was utter disbelief. He swore he had never done drugs and added that he knew nobody on the circuit who did coke.
By the time of Roland Garros in late May, Gasquet started amplifying his denial and announced that he intended to appeal the case and overturn his two-year suspension. In an interview with L’Equipe, he admitted that he had violated his normally monastic training routine and gone clubbing in Miami. But he said he had had just a couple of drinks and he suspected somebody must have spiked them. Why? He couldn’t say. Who? He couldn’t guess.
Rafael Nadal rushed to Gasquet’s defense and suggested that his French friend may have kissed a cocaine user. As an excuse, that ranks up there with “the dog ate my homework” or the Twinkie Defense in Harvey Milk’s murder. It led joking reporters to observe that perhaps Gasquet had kissed Martina Hingis, who tested positive for cocaine and retired rather than fight a two-year suspension. But Gasquet refused to go away quietly like the demure Swiss. He vowed to keep battling and by Wimbledon he had discarded the spiked-drink defense and fastened on the cocaine kiss defense. Suddenly he remembered snogging a French girl, Pamela (no last name). Indeed, he kissed her more than once, he maintained. Though never identified, Pamela was said to be a cocaine user by some sources — and a good girl by others. Tennis fans held their breath, waiting for a decision on Gasquet’s appeal.
With all due respect to a player’s right to plead his case, there is for anyone who has followed tennis on a regular basis something wearyingly familiar about this scenario — a positive drug test followed by denials, impassioned appeals to the court of public opinion, as well as to the authorities, and an ever-changing defense. To escape the fog and put things in perspective, let us reflect on a Short History of Drugs in Tennis.
Stimulants have long been popular on the tour. The celebrated diva Suzanne Lenglen braced herself between sets with sips of cognac. Eventually, alcohol in industrial quantities became the drug of choice on the circuit, and hangovers, not overdoses, were the greatest danger. As described in The Romance of Wimbledon, a book by John Olliff, The Daily Telegraph’s tennis correspondent, the ‘21 quarterfinal between Zenzo Shimidzu of Japan and Randolf Lycett of Australia was a drunken fiasco. Played on a blisteringly hot day, the match was deadlocked at a set apiece and 3-3 in the third, when Lycett seemed to suffer sunstroke and had to be revived with gin. Though wobbly, Lycett won the third set, but couldn’t continue without another stimulant — champagne. Apparently, he drank a whole bottle and by the fifth set was staggering and stumbling, falling and crawling around on his hands and knees, searching for his racket. While it’s not surprising that Lycett lost, it may shock some fans to learn that the Aussie wasn’t the last player to quaff champagne on Centre Court. That dubious honor belongs to Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase, who split a bottle during a doubles match in the mid-’70s and were seen as jolly good fellows for doing so.
Inevitably, players branched out to other chemically-charged substances. But since there were no tests, users stood little chance of getting caught, and since omertà operated then just as it does now on the circuit, nobody did much more than gossip about the subject. Journalists who witnessed players doing cocaine, for instance, didn’t feel compelled to report it. My friend, Gene Scott, the late publisher of Tennis Week, always defended this practice, explaining that what a journalist saw in a social setting should remain off limits. By that logic, unless a reporter spotted someone snorting lines at a tournament, he should keep his mouth shut.
But then in September ‘80, Yannick Noah broke the silence in an interview with Rock & Folk, the French equivalent of Rolling Stone. While admitting that he smoked hashish, Noah accused other players of using cocaine. What’s more — and in his opinion what was worse — some were popping amphetamines. This infuriated him because it put clean players at a disadvantage. He lamented that they might have to use coke or amphetamines to stay competitive with drug abusers. He wanted the problem to be brought into the open and discussed. If it weren’t, Noah feared there would be deaths from overdoses.
The reaction of tennis authorities and the press was to savage Noah for smoking hashish. His remarks about coke and speed were ignored, as were the players whom he said “take the hit during a tournament and crash afterward. You have guys who have played super during one tournament and who you’ve never seen again.”
He mentioned Victor Pecci by name.
A year later, Arthur Ashe proposed that tennis start testing for drugs. During the ‘82 U.S. Open, Ashe told me that the ATP had “established a relationship with this organization called Comp-Care. Comp-Care will, for free, help you deal with your drug problems anonymously.”
At Ashe’s encouragement, I called Comp-Care to arrange an interview and was referred to Dr. Robert B. Millman, Director of the Drug and Alcohol Abuse program at Cornell University Medical College. A psychiatrist and internist, Dr. Millman said he was treating a variety of professional athletes, including an unspecified number of tennis players. When I asked whether drugs were a problem on the circuit, he answered, “Absolutely.” The money and glamour of the game, he explained, brought players into frequent contact with show biz celebs who were heavy cocaine users. Many players succumbed to peer pressure or turned to drugs to reduce stress.
Dr. Millman said that a few players used heroin, snorting it, not shooting it. He wasn’t convinced that players confined cocaine to recreational use. Though he conceded he couldn’t prove it, he had heard of players taking cocaine for a lift during matches. But for someone who wanted to improve his game dramatically, amphetamines had quicker results. As Dr. Millman put it, “Speed makes you better.” But then, “It makes you worse.”
When I published this interview in my book Short Circuit in ‘83, tennis authorities responded with an across-the-board denial and a series of personal attacks. I was physically removed from the press box at the Italian Open, roughed up and threatened by a tournament director and IMG agent. Tennis authorities dismissed this as a personal matter and took no action.
It wasn’t until the mid-’80s that tennis accepted international standards for drug testing, including out-of-competition testing and sanctions for rule-breakers. But it was too late to deal with a cluster of juiced-up stars. In various books, player memoirs and investigative articles, it has been alleged that John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitas and Pat Cash, winners of a combined total of 20 Grand Slam titles, used cocaine in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. In the early ‘90s, Karel Novacek tested positive for cocaine.
Some apologists argue that cocaine is a recreational drug, not a performance enhancer. But it’s a stimulant, and that’s why tennis banned it. Other drugs — heroin, ecstasy and a host of other party pills — are not penalized. Unlike other pro sports, tennis seems to have no interest in cracking down on non-performance-enhancing substances, which are both dangerous and illegal. That is, dangerous not just because of potential side effects, but because they force buyers to associate with criminals, opening them up to blackmail. (Think of this in relation to last year’s scandal about betting and match-fixing on the tour.)
By the time the news about cocaine use in tennis broke, the game had more powerful performance enhancers to worry about. Anabolic steroids, human growth hormones, EPO and a witch’s brew of powerful elixirs hit the black market. Aussie Open champ Czech Petr Korda tested positive, as did a gaggle of other Europeans — Stefan Koubek, Karol Beck, Filippo Volandri — and Argentineans Juan Ignacio Chela, Guillermo Canas, Guillermo Coria and Mariano Puerta. The latter two made it to the French Open finals after serving suspensions for drug use. At Roland Garros in ‘05, Puerta had the dubious distinction of testing positive a second time and receiving a career-ending suspension.
As tennis continued to award itself a badge of merit for its drug program, Steffi Graf startled a French Open press conference in ‘94 by announcing that she had never been tested for drugs and that she suspected other women were bulking up on steroids. Subsequently, Gabriela Sabatini threatened legal action when her name kept cropping up in reports about steroid use.
Then in ‘96, Boris Becker speculated that the hyperactive Austrian Thomas Muster must be on something — and the good German got disciplined for his injudicious remarks. Sticking to its policy of punishing the messenger, tennis authorities also cracked down hard in ‘02 on Frenchman Nicholas Escude, who said, just as Noah had done 20 years earlier, that it was obvious when players were juiced. All you had to do was look at their bodies and their eyes. Moreover, Escude charged that some players had tested positive, but the ATP wasn’t revealing the results.
Dismissed at first as a pop-off with no basis for his accusations, Escude was vindicated when it was belatedly revealed that between August ‘02 and May ‘03 seven players had tested positive for nandrolone and 53 others had showed elevated traces for nandrolone or its precursors. Only one of these players was identified — Bodhan Ulirach of the Czech Republic — and he was suspended for two years.
But when a second player came before the tribunal, he argued that he had taken electrolyte replacement pills provided by ATP trainers. Submitting two dozen legal affidavits, the player contended that the electrolyte tablets must have been contaminated with nandrolone. The other players who had tested positive promptly adopted the same defense.
Normally, under the ATP’s policy of strict liability, a player is responsible for whatever is in his system. Even if he ingests a banned substance unknowingly, he is penalized — although the penalty may be reduced if there are extenuating circumstances. But in this instance, because the ATP might have supplied contaminated supplements, the burden of proof switched, and players maintained that it was up to the ATP to prove that the pills weren’t tainted.
The ATP had been offering these products at tournaments for over 20 years with no problems and no complaints. Even so, it analyzed 500 tablets that were believed to have been available at a tournament where positive or elevated tests had occurred. No contaminants were discovered. Then the ATP submitted the remaining jars in its possession for further analysis. Representative samples from these jars revealed no contamination. In short, there was never any scientific proof that the ATP electrolytes were contaminated and no evidence that the players in question had consumed them.
Yet under the legal principle of equitable estoppel, the ATP couldn’t enforce its anti-doping rules unless it was willing to undertake a ruinously expensive court action. As a consequence, Ulirach was retroactively pardoned, even though he had never previously cited electrolyte replacements as a factor in his positive test. The cases against the other six players were dropped.
By mid-May ‘03, the ATP had stopped distributing electrolyte replacements. News of this was widely disseminated in the press, and notices were posted in player locker rooms. More than two months later, however, Greg Rusedski tested positive. Invoking the same defense as previous players, he claimed that the ATP, not he, was responsible. Though there was still no proof that the electrolytes had been contaminated or that Rusedski had ever taken them, and no explanation of how Rusedski had been tainted by supplements that had already been removed from the locker room, the tribunal decreed that his case too deserved to be dismissed.
Dick Pound, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, called the decision “preposterous…It defies imagination.”
David Howman, Director General of WADA, pointed out, “It’s unprecedented to have a series of positive results where the individuals have been exonerated and the sport has chosen to fall on its own sword…It undermines the whole principle of the anti-doping program.”
Even the ATP was stunned. David Higdon, then VP of Media Relations, said, “To be honest, we’re surprised…He tested positive and that’s an uncontroverted fact.”
In the first months of ‘04, 16 more players showed elevated test results for nandrolone, with the same analytic fingerprint as the previous positives and elevated negatives. According to the ATP, these players hailed from a dozen different countries, and their test results occurred at tournaments at different times in different parts of the world. Since there was no question now of contaminated ATP supplements, what explained these troubling elevated scores?
No explanation has ever been forthcoming. Except for Ulirach and Rusedski, none of the other players who tested positive for performance enhancers or showed trace amounts in their systems has ever been identified. The ATP has refused to say whether these players were required to have follow-up tests. Tennis fans have no way of knowing whether the six unnamed players won tournaments, perhaps even Grand Slam titles, during the time when they tested positive.
Lest I be accused of sexual discrimination by focusing entirely on men, I should mention that Sesil Karatantcheva tested positive for steroids in ‘06. Showing the same feistiness in court as she does on court, the 15-year-old from Kazakhstan came up with an excuse that more than matched any man’s for pure chutzpah. Where Gasquet demurely fell back on the coke kiss defense, Karatantcheva went all the way and admitted she had been pregnant when she tested positive. Before she could have an abortion, she suffered a miscarriage. This, she contended, must have sparked a riot of hormones that had been mistaken for steroids.
As much as the tribunal may have sympathized with her predicament, it ruled there was no scientific basis to her argument. Now having served a two-year suspension, Karatantcheva is back on the women’s tour, but has shown nowhere near the same level that she displayed before her suspension.
But Gasquet still takes the prize, hands down. Without interviewing Pamela and pinning down the facts of the case — Did she kiss Gasquet? Did she use cocaine? — an independent anti-doping tribunal decided in July ‘09 to reduce Gasquet’s suspension to two-and-a-half months. In effect, the penalty became the time he had already been off the tour.
The ITF has now appealed Gasquet’s successful appeal and asked the Court of Arbitration for Sport to re-impose the original two-year ban. What’s more, Pamela has announced that she intends to file a suit against Gasquet for slandering her reputation, violating her privacy and infuriating her boyfriend with false accusations.
Then just when it seemed that the history of drugs in tennis couldn’t get any weirder, Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open, appeared, and in addition to revelations about this heavy drinking, it contained an extraordinary confession. Andre admits to using crystal meth, snorting it with a Vegas friend called Slim. What’s more, in ‘97, he tested positive at a tournament and was informed by the ATP that he faced public exposure and suspension. But in a series of flabbergasting moves that seem to foreshadow Gasquet’s case, Andre wrote a letter to the ATP claiming that he had mistakenly drunk one of Slim’s sodas that had been spiked with meth. The ATP accepted Agassi’s bogus plea of innocence, never asking for evidence nor apparently even questioning him or Slim. And of course the public was never told, adding credence to Escude’s accusation that players have tested positive and never been named, much less punished. This admission by Agassi raises a host of questions that his book doesn’t address. But just as clearly it raises serious questions once again about rule enforcement in tennis.
Mewshaw is the author of Short Circuit, as well as Ladies of the Court: Grace and Disgarce on the Women’s Tennis Tour
Pretty interesting stuff. The part about the nandrolone positives is quite damning.
Was that a big deal in the early 00's or did it fly under the radar somehow?
Drug testing facts:
Operacion Puerto, drug testing facts and quotes from players and officials:
Drug testing facts:
Armstrong's doping doc has tennis links!