Commentary

Wickmayer, Malisse paying stiff penalty

Updated: November 10, 2009, 2:20 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

Andre Agassi's life became quite literally an open book Monday with the formal release of his autobiography. Thanks to a slew of leaks, excerpts and reaction over the preceding 10 days, by the time Agassi sat down for a "60 Minutes" interview Sunday evening, most people with any interest in the subject had a pretty good idea of what he might say.

Meanwhile, in current tennis action, two Belgian players found themselves in a position Agassi probably could not have imagined when he wriggled out of a potential drug suspension 12 years ago.

Rising young WTA talent Yanina Wickmayer and ATP veteran Xavier Malisse received harsh one-year suspensions for failing to regularly and accurately report their whereabouts to international anti-doping authorities. Wickmayer, 20, is said to have broken the reporting rules three times within an 18-month period. Under the World Anti-Doping Agency code, that number of infractions triggers the same hearing as an actual positive drug test. Malisse, 29, missed two whereabouts filing deadlines and one unannounced test over the same period. There is no evidence, inference or implication that either player used a banned substance. They have said they will appeal to the Court for Arbitration in Sport.

The confluence of Agassi's mea culpa and the Belgians' fall from bureaucratic grace provoked criticism that was, in some quarters, as heated as the response to Agassi's most sensational revelation. He admitted lying to the ATP in 1997 by saying he inadvertently ingested methamphetamine in a spiked drink when in fact he had been using crystal meth recreationally for the better part of that year.

There was speculation the decision to get tough on Wickmayer and Malisse may have arisen from the knowledge that Agassi got away with one. But it's entirely likely that the Belgian anti-doping authorities who heard the case were simply reinforcing the notion that drug testing is a toothless deterrent unless athletes can be located for surprise testing. Letting whereabouts infractions slide with a slap on the wrist could undermine the entire system, and it wouldn't be fair to the great majority of athletes who have somehow found a way to comply with the tedious regulations.

While the International Tennis Federation will enforce the sanctions, the panel that pondered the Wickmayer and Malisse cases was convened by the Flemish arm of Belgium's national anti-doping organization, following the same WADA-mandated process it would with an accused runner or speedskater or cyclist.

Are the WADA rules perfect? By no means. Do they sometimes ensnare athletes who don't deserve to be punished? Yes. Ask skeleton racer Zach Lund of the United States, who fell afoul of the code when he used an anti-balding formula and was evicted from the Olympic Village on the eve of the opening ceremonies in Turin four years ago, his credential cut up by a security guard before his unbelieving eyes.

Are there bigger fish slipping through WADA's net while we watch Wickmayer and Malisse writhe? Undoubtedly. The system will never yield uniformly fair or proportionate outcomes. It is also just 10 years old and still subject to continual revision. The current rules that require top athletes to specify one hour a day during which they can be found for testing have been blasted by a number of tennis players.

[+] EnlargeYanina Wickmayer
AP Photo/Achmad IbrahimWhether or not we advocate the strict drug-testing policies, all players, including Yanina Wickmayer, must play by the rules.

There's been a fair amount of talk about how far the sport has come since the loosey-goosey '90s, when decision-makers accepted Agassi's word without so much as looking into his big brown eyes. One of the questions left hanging by his admission was how he could have used crystal meth for months on end -- he has declined to specify precisely when or how often -- but was caught only once. Agassi didn't play much that season, but he probably also benefited from the more lax testing standards of the time. Do we really want to edge back toward that era of easy excuses by administrators and athletes alike?

It is unfortunate that Wickmayer's and Malisse's careers have been interrupted at this point in this way -- especially for Wickmayer, who built the foundation of her game in Florida after losing her mother as a child and vaulted out of obscurity in September to reach the U.S. Open semifinals. Belgium's sports minister has said he will support the players' appeals.

Every athlete who competes in a sport covered by the WADA code signs up to play under the same legal framework. Abiding by those rules should become as routine as punching a time card. Otherwise -- well, there are a lot of other things to do for a living, and a lot of people who would gladly trade their circumstances for the physical gifts and job descriptions of elite athletes.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.