For Petr Korda, competing in the Honda Challenge seniors tournament at the Albert Hall this week will mark a brave leap into hell. "I love London," he insisted during a break from fitness training in his Prague home, "but it is like a devil city because of what happened to me."
What happened to Korda was that after reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 1998 he tested positive for nandrolone. A year later he retired at 31, just ahead of the imposition of a year's ban which followed 15 months of vacillation by the authorities. Two and a half years on, and still vehemently protesting his innocence, Korda has opted to compete in an event which, he claims, will show whether he has recovered his zest, and his love, for the game.
The talented eccentric whose bogbrush haircut and skinny 6ft 3in build earned him the nickname The Human Toothbrush, was tempted back into tennis by John McEnroe, who wanted the Czech left-hander to join the senior circuit last year. Korda said no to that but this year agreed to play six tournaments, culminating in London, and promised he would then assess his attitude. In fact, he has played only two, Geneva and San Francisco, the others having been cancelled. Korda beat the likes of Jakob Hlasek, Emilio Sanchez and Henri Leconte before lack of conditioning forced him out of the Californian event with back trouble.
Korda says he has enjoyed regaining fitness. "London is going to be a pretty good test of the work I have been doing," he said. "What happened to me is not a pleasant story and I am very bitter about it because I have never used any substance in my life. To be honest, it isn't easy for me to be around a tennis court these days but I want to find out if playing again will bring the flame back. I was someone who played from the heart, someone who loved the game, someone who never wanted to hurt it. So there is no point in coming back unless my heart is in it."
His first Grand Slam victory, at the 1998 Australian Open, had kicked off what promised to be Korda's finest season. He shot up to second in the rankings but his dream of finishing the year at number one was not to be. At Wimbledon he needed treatment on a strained Achilles tendon but did not have any injections, the perceived way to administer nandrolone at the time. "I never used anything like that," he insisted. "I hate it and I can't bear injections anyway. That year I was tested 11 times. Three weeks after Wimbledon a test in Toronto showed everything clear. What can I say?"
The positive test resulted in automatic loss of £60,000 Wimbledon prize money and ranking points but the committee appointed by the International Tennis Federation did not impose a ban. The ITF appealed against the decision of its own committee and eventually, in September 1999, Korda was barred and forfeited his entire 1998 earnings of more than £130,000. By the time this decision was arrived at, Korda had quit.
At Wimbledon in 1999 the man who 18 months earlier had won the Australian Open had seen his ranking slide to 116, so an automatic place in the draw was beyond him. When Korda's request for a wild card was refused, he tried to qualify but lost in the second round to Britain's Danny Sapsford.
"I retired after Wimbledon '99 but I had already retired mentally a long time before that, when I first got the news about testing positive," he said. "I stopped producing from that moment. I also lost something a lot more important than prize money. My dad always taught me respect for the game and I didn't have that any more. It was the biggest loss of all.
"I didn't touch a tennis racket for two years after that, except to play in a Challenger tournament in Prague at the end of last year as a birthday present to my dad. It was his 60th birthday that week and I wanted him to see me on court. I hadn't exercised since Wimbledon '99, hadn't even watched any tennis. Instead, I came to love golf. If you make a mistake in that sport you have paid the penalty and nobody else can do something to you." Korda says he was hurt by the criticisms of some fellow professionals and claims he was "hunted" by the authorities. "I come from a small country, so we will always be treated in a different way. So many people judged me but none of them know me. I have never opened up to anybody, so nobody knows whether I am a good or bad person. There were a few people who supported me but I never asked anyone for help and I never will because I know at the bottom of my heart I never did anything. I will try to find the best way I can to clean the name of Korda but I am not going to run from door to door trying to convince people. It is up to them to make their own judgement.
"I have to accept what happened to me but maybe one day justice will be done. Hopefully in a few years medicine will have advanced to new levels and my questions will be answered. Then I am going to be able to die in peace.
"Since I stopped playing my weight is the same. I am also the same person. I played an exhibition in Finland in July with Bjorn Borg and Mansour Bahrami. They welcomed me back and took me under their wing. From that moment I had a warm feeling in my heart.
"In July 1999, my last time at Wimbledon, I was sad because it is the church of tennis, a special place. What happened to me there is not going to change my affection for Wimbledon.
"It will always be very special to me and one day I will go back, though I don't know if it will be as a senior player or a spectator. But right now I don't think I am ready to go back. My stomach would be shaking.
"It has been a roller coaster ride. It was a great life, I just wish it had had a different end. Winning some matches at the Albert Hall could be the big turn-round. I am in good shape physically but don't know how I am mentally. So perhaps the people of London will kick me back into tennis."Reuse content