Opening a Pandora's box

Andre Agassis revelations about doping raise plenty of questions about ATPs testing procedures


Andre Agassi’s admission has thrown the tennis world into a tizzy while leaving the anti-doping agencies fuming.  AFP

The incident would probably have remained in the back of a filing cabinet had the eight-times grand slam champion not decided to describe in graphic detail in his autobiography how he took the substance and then hoodwinked the ATP into believing that it was all a simple mistake.

That Agassi, now 39, found himself in such a dark place in 1997, the crisis year of his glittering career, and he felt the need to get high on drugs is sad. That he lied to avoid what probably would have been a three-month ban is shocking.

But probably the most worrying aspect of the story which has stunned tennis is just how ATP officials were so easily duped and how little they have said on the subject.

It makes a mockery of the ATP's drug-testing procedures in the days before tennis signed up to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code in 2006. While there is no suggestion of a cover-up (Agassi's case was heard by an independent tribunal) it does raise awkward questions for the ATP.

Considering that Agassi, who retired at the US Open in 2006, was one of the greatest players ever to wield a racket, the ATP's reaction this week to his confessions has been equally mystifying.

After all the charismatic American was no ordinary tennis player. He is one of only six men to capture all four grand slams and he was living proof that you did not need to be tall and powerful to reach the top.

Brains and a gunslinger's reflexes allowed the American player to survive and prosper amongst the serving monsters who threatened to take over the game in the 1990s.
Yet the ATP's bland statement on Wednesday merely repeated their protocol on doping cases, that a player's anonymity be respected unless he be found guilty.

It did not even mention Agassi by name. The story that was buzzing across the world's sports pages and websites was treated as a routine piece of office administration.
WADA president John Fahey was certainly not taking the matter lightly, although in his statement he stressed that action against Agassi was unlikely so long after the event. What he did say, however, might cause discomfort at ATP headquarters, even if the people in charge at the time of Agassi's drug-taking have probably moved on.

"(Agassi's admission) shows the importance of having a global independent monitoring body like WADA in place, which receives notice of all positive tests in sports that adopted the World Anti-Doping Code from WADA accredited laboratories and can follow up with the relevant anti-doping organisation to ensure that proper management of the results is conducted.

"This ensures that no doping case is swept under the carpet.
"WADA would, however, expect the ATP, which administered its own anti-doping programme at that time, to shed light on this allegation."

The US media has been restrained in its response to Agassi's admissions. The New York Times noted Agassi was able to bounce back from his dark spell and enjoy a successful end to his career. 

"The question is: Might it all have turned out differently without Agassi's reprieve from the doping panel, without his lie?" it asked referring to the five majors he won after 1997.

However, CBS columnist Ray Ratto questioned the motive behind Agassi's revelations. "We're not here to kick a guy now that he's back up, although in fairness we've always found honesty to be more refreshing when it doesn't come at $31.99 a copy."

The ease with which Agassi appears to have got away with a failed dope test, albeit for a recreational substance rather than a performance-enhancing one, will inevitably raise suspicions over a whole era in the men's game.

It also leaves a nasty stain on Agassi's reputation. Agassi was always a good talker in post-match press conferences. Journalists hung on his every word as he analysed matches and spoke from the heart.

Throughout his career he was the perfect package for the ATP as they tried to give the men's game the sex appeal that was provided by Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in the 1970s and 80s.

Swashbuckling on court, charming off it, the Las Vegas showman was the perfect adversary for golden boy Pete Sampras who often got a rough ride in the media despite his dominance of the sport for nearly a decade.

Sampras, whose record of 14 grand slam titles was recently surpassed by Roger Federer, was seen as a little dull, lacking that unpredictability that has fans flocking to tennis stadiums.

Right now, however, the ATP is probably wishing Agassi's memoirs were full of the kind of mundane nonsense normally found inside the glossy covers of sporting autobiographies.


Life and times of a maverick tennis star

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS:

*He had a mass of unkempt long blond hair and a penchant for outlandish outfits and played his first professional match in California in Feb. 1986. He won his first title as a wildcard in Itaparica the next year. In 1988, he won six titles in seven finals and reached French and U.S. Open semi-finals.

*In 1992 he won his first grand slam at Wimbledon by defeating Goran Ivanisevic in five sets. He also won titles in Atlanta and Toronto.

*He underwent wrist surgery in 1994 and went on to capture five titles, including his first US Open trophy.

*The next year he won a career-high seven titles in a season, including the first Australian Open crown.

A DOWNTURN:

*In 1997 he married US actress Brooke Shields and he suffered a dip in form. His ranking plummeted to 141.

SWIFT REVIVAL:

*However, he made the biggest one-year jump into the top 10 in the history of ATP rankings (since 1973) by climbing from 122 previous year to number six in 1998. He went on to win five titles from 10 final appearances.

*The next year, 1999, he ended the year ranked number one for the first time in his career after winning five titles, including French and US Opens. He became the fifth man -- after Don Budge, Rod Laver, Fred Perry and Roy Emerson -- to win all four grand slam titles in his career. He earned a career-high of $4,269,265 in prize money in 1999. Australian Open titles in 2000 and 2001 followed.

*In May 2003, at 33 he became the oldest man to hold the top ranking.

*His 60th singles title came in Los Angeles in 2005.

*On Sept. 3 2006, Agassi's glittering career came to a tearful conclusion when he lost in four sets to German qualifier Benjamin Becker in the US Open third round.

LIFE DETAILS:

*Agassi was born April 29, 1970 in Las Vegas, Nevada.

*He married actress Brooke Shields in April 1997, however after two years, the marriage fell apart and they divorced.

*He married former women's number one Steffi Graf in Oct. 2001 days before the birth of their son Jaden Gil. A daughter, Jaz Elle was born in October 2003. 

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