Puerta ban fuels Argentinian paranoia

Paranoia concerning tennis doping appears to have gripped Argentina, where mitigation for testing positive for banned substances ranges from a baldness treatment to drinking from the glass of a wife who takes medication for hypertension. The glass was used by Mariano Puerta, 27, singles finalist at the French Open, who, none the less, was given a record eight-year ban because it was his second drugs offence.

It was accepted Puerta took the banned substance etilefrine inadvertently, otherwise he would have been banned for life.

The baldness treatment, finasteride, is alleged to have been taken by Mariano Hood, 32, who is under investigation after reportedly testing positive after playing doubles with the Czech Martin Damm in the French Open quarter-finals. Excluding Hood, five players from Argentina have been penalised in the past five years.

Prior to Puerta's ban on Wednesday - he has three weeks to lodge an appeal - Guillermo Canas was suspended for two years after testing positive for the prohibited diuretic hydrochlorothiazide; Guillermo Coria (seven months for nandrolone) and Juan Ignacio Chela (three months for methyltestosterone) also served suspensions; and in 2003 Martin Rodriguez was docked ranking points and prize-money. Puerta was previously banned for nine-months after testing positive for clenbuterol in 2003.

All this has created resentment among players from Argentina, who consider they have become universally perceived as drug cheats. And it would be misleading to assume that the use of performance-enhancing substances in tennis is confined to any one country or continent.

Not long ago, the tennis community described itself as a drug-free sport, a boast that proved to be nonsense. That is why, from New Year's Day, the International Tennis Federation will manage, administrate and enforce the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme at ATP Tour-sanctioned events, in compliance with the World Anti-Doping Agency code.

The ATP Tour's anti-doping programme was undermined by the farce of a catalogue of positive tests for the banned anabolic steroid nandrolone. Eight players were exonerated - Britain's Greg Rusedski, the Czech Bohdan Ulirach, plus six others who were never named because they adhered to a confidentiality clause. The ATP admitted that that their trainers may have been responsible for handing out contaminated supplements, though this was never proved.

In 2003, Andre Agassi described the Australian player Andrew Ilie as "irresponsible" for claiming the use of performance-enhancing drugs was widespread and that some players were prepared to "sacrifice their health for three years of fame." At the same time, Agassi, the only man to complete the Grand Slam since the Australian Open and the US Open changed from grass courts to rubberised concrete, is adamant it is impossible to perform at the highest level in the modern game without taking supplements.

Martina Navratilova believes that the players are terrified of taking anything. She recounts that she mistakenly drank from someone else's Evian water bottle in Melbourne, which "tasted sweet. "If I'd tested positive I would have been banned," she said.

Although female players are tested at International Tennis Federation events the women's tour has its own anti-drug programme.

l Andy Murray, the 18-year-old hope of British tennis, had decided to leave his management company, Octagon, and is expected to join the Ace agency.

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