Doping stories stealing first major's steam

Updated: January 18, 2004, 3:52 PM ET
Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia -- While fans wonder whether Andre Agassi will win a ninth major title or how Venus Williams will play after her long absence, another intriguing story is casting a shadow over the start of the Australian Open.

Tennis was jolted two weeks ago when 1997 U.S. Open finalist Greg Rusedski announced he tested positive for the banned steroid nandrolone in July -- and claimed that it must have come from a supplement provided by ATP trainers.

Everyone from John McEnroe to Lindsay Davenport has weighed in since. And they might well be asked for more opinions on the subject during the year's first Grand Slam tournament, where play was set to start Monday (Sunday night ET).

"I know that the players I play with are clean," said Andy Roddick, seeded No. 1 at a major for the first time. "And, you know, it's disappointing to see it taking away from all the good stories in the game."

Davenport, the fifth-seeded woman, figures steroids would have limited benefits in this sport.

"I'm sure some players unfortunately do go down that path, but ultimately, tennis is still a game of skill," she said. "So I think although it probably would help in some aspect, ultimately, it comes down to how well you can make contact with the tennis ball, and no drug is going to help you get better at that."

The ATP, which runs the men's tour and is part of the tennis anti-doping program along with the International Tennis Federation and the WTA, conducted at least 1,100 random tests at tournaments in 2003 and about 60 out-of-competition tests.

Agassi, who won last year's Australian Open, said he played in 13 tournaments in 2003 and took a total of 19 drug tests: 11 urine samples and eight blood samples, three out-of-competition tests. Roddick said he was tested at least 17 times.

"One of the things we can say is our sport is leading -- if not the top sport -- in drug testing in both intensity as far as what they test for and how often they test," Agassi said. "I have full confidence I am playing someone who is clean."

Rusedski is allowed to compete pending a Feb. 9 hearing on his case and plays 26th-seeded Albert Costa in the first round at Melbourne Park. Rusedski received generous applause when he walked on court at a warmup tournament in Sydney.

"I know I'm innocent -- I'm not going to hide," he said. Other players were exonerated after their positive samples showed a similar "fingerprint," meaning the substances could come a common source, he said.

"I'm not the only person in this situation. The facts speak for themselves," Rusedski said.

He's had public support from Bohdan Ulihrach, one of seven players to initially test positive for nandrolone and later be cleared after the possibility was raised that ATP trainers might have unwittingly handed out contaminated supplements.

"I believe Greg 100 percent," Ulihrach told Britain's The Guardian newspaper. "I'm sure it's some mistake."

McEnroe, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, said he was given a strong -- but at the time legal -- steroid for six years without knowing it, and he suspected players were taking drugs when he was playing.

Drug testing in tennis started in the late 1980s by the Men's International Professional Tennis Council, initially for recreational drugs. Other substances that were considered performance enhancing have been added to the banned list.

Rusedski says his is one of 47 cases where traces of nandrolone might be attributed to supplements provided by ATP trainers.

The ATP rejects that figure, saying instead that in 36 cases players showed elevated levels of nandrolone that were below the threshold for a positive test. The men's tour said seven other minimal positives were erased after it couldn't prove supplements dispensed by its trainers didn't contain traces of banned substances.

The tour became aware of the possibility that it was mistakenly giving out contaminated products last May, when an unidentified player tested positive for nandrolone and said he was using only ATP-provided electrolyte tablets that help avoid dehydration.

Ulihrach's ban and fine were discarded after that.

Nandrolone has produced a spate of positive tests in several sports in recent years. In many cases, athletes said they took the banned substance unknowingly in nutritional supplements.

Petr Korda, the 1998 Australian Open champion, tested positive for nandrolone at Wimbledon later that season and was banned for one year.

News of Rusedski's positive test came two days after Argentina's Mariano Puerta was suspended for nine months by the ATP for testing positive last year for clenbuterol, whose effects resemble those of anabolic steroids by promoting muscle growth.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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