Commentary

Banned substance wasn't taken to enhance performance

Marcelo Melo took a banned substance and got caught. However, he wasn't using the substance as a performance enhancer, so Melo's suspension has been greatly reduced.

Updated: September 27, 2007, 3:53 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | Special to ESPN.com

The International Tennis Federation's recently announced two-month doping suspension of Brazilian doubles specialist Marcelo Melo left us a little cross-eyed, so we decided to dig deeper.

You might remember a small flurry of stories out of Wimbledon about Melo and his Brazilian partner, Andre Sa . The pair played an epic 28-26 fifth set to upset Paul Hanley of Australia and Kevin Ullyett of Zimbabwe in the third round and eventually reached the semifinals. Melo and Sa currently are ranked 12th in the world.

Melo's suspension was the result of a positive test June 10 for the stimulant isometheptene at the Stella Artois grass-court event in London, a Wimbledon tuneup. He is banned from competition from Sept. 10 to Nov. 9.

Isometheptene is contained in analgesic medications used to help treat migraine headaches. It's on the World Anti-Doping Agency banned list but as part of the "specified" list of substances -- jargon for stuff that's commonly found in over-the-counter medication and thus is more likely to be taken inadvertently.

When an athlete tests positive for a substance in this category, the international governing body has the discretion to reduce the standard two-year suspension if there are mitigating circumstances.

The press release issued by the ITF said the light sanction was accorded because Melo, 24, didn't take the substance to "enhance his performance." Our first thought was that a lot of athletes have unsuccessfully made that same argument.

Stuart Miller, director of science and technical affairs for the ITF, said Wednesday that the ITF's five-member anti-doping department accepted Melo's written explanation that isometheptene was in his system because he had taken a migraine medication called Neosaldina. Melo was given the option of going before an arbitration panel, having his case heard by one official or agreeing to a sanction without negotiation -- which is what he wound up doing.

"We felt the sanction was an appropriate one," Miller said. Athletes are expected to keep up with what's on the banned list and to know when over-the-counter medication can come back to bite them.

The murkier part of the Melo decision concerns the financial and rankings implications. According to Miller, since Melo was not informed of the initial A-sample positive test until just before the U.S. Open -- at least two months after the alleged offense -- he will forfeit the cash and points he won at the London event and the U.S. Open (where he and Sa reached the quarterfinals), but nothing in between. Thus, he gets to keep the 450 points and $57,000 the team earned at Wimbledon in its most significant performance of the season.

Miller, who said he believed Melo was informed Aug. 8, said the delay in processing the results was not unusual. He attributed it to circumstances beyond the ITF's control.

All the ITF's samples are processed, under contract, at the WADA-accredited lab in Montreal. While followers of cycling and some other sports might have become accustomed to near-overnight analysis of doping tests, Miller said the ITF's widely scattered events and the time and cost involved in shipping samples to Montreal don't allow for that. Communication between the ITF, federation officials and the player also takes time, he said. There was "absolutely no" effort to manipulate the process in order to preserve Melo's Wimbledon result, Miller said.

Isometheptene was central to at least one previous high-profile doping case. Colombian track cyclist Maria-Luisa Calle Williams was stripped of her bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics after testing positive for the stimulant heptaminol. She won it back on appeal in late 2005, when arbitrators ruled that her metabolism had naturally converted isometheptene, contained in -- you guessed it -- Neosaldina, to heptaminol. Isometheptene was not on WADA's banned list at the time but has since been added.

Miller said he wished test results were available to the ITF in a more timely fashion. We second that notion. Delays like this only add to public confusion about the anti-doping adjudication process.

Agnes Szavay
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty ImagesSzavay entered this week's event in Seoul 23-3 since Wimbledon.
Still on a rampage: Hungary's 18-year-old Agnes Szavay is about to start a spate of quips about competitive appetite. One of the "Girls Gone Wild" who made a hash of the U.S. Open draw by upsetting highly seeded players (Szavay downed Michaella Krajicek and Nadia Petrova in back-to-back rounds before losing in the quarterfinals), Szavay's tense three-set win over No. 3 Jelena Jankovic in the Beijing final last week cemented her status as one of the WTA's fastest-improving players. She's playing in Seoul this week, and as of press time, she had won her first two matches to make it seven in a row.

Szavay, who ended last season ranked No. 207, slotted in at No. 20 this week. She had to qualify to get into the main draw at Wimbledon and lost in the second round, but since then has won a clay-court event in Palermo, Italy, and made the Pilot Pen final, retiring due to injury mid-match against Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Debutante: Michelle Larcher de Brito, the highly touted Portuguese 14-year-old attending Nick Bollettieri's academy, gate-crashed the WTA rankings this week at No. 364 after advancing to the semifinals of a $75,000 Challenger event in Albuquerque, N.M. She is the youngest player in the top 500.

Larcher de Brito, whose schedule is limited by the WTA's age rules, had entered only one other tournament, a $25,000 clay-court Satellite event in Bogota, Colombia, since her upset of Meghann Shaughnessy in Key Biscayne, Fla., last March.

Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.