Rusedski's strong case for defence

Drugs and tennis: British No 2 gains support in fight to rescue his reputation as ATP's system comes under attack
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The Independent Online

So, then, is Greg Rusedski abuser or abused? In a staggering 48 hours which have thrown a barricade of accusation and counter-accusation across the starting gate of the new tennis season, Rusedski strode from the deep shadow of drug-shame headlines this weekend clad in a crusader's cape.

Whether his protestations of complete innocence and a swingeing attack on those who run the men's game, the Association of Tennis Professionals, can restore Rusedski's reputation will not become clear until four weeks tomorrow, when a tribunal is due to sit, coincidentally, in the city of his birth, Montreal, to consider the charge of nandrolone excess.

With the clarion exception of Pat Cash and, to a more restrained degree, Tony Pickard, all those who have coached or captained Rusedski since he wrapped himself in the Union flag in 1995 testify to the man's professionalism and transparent honesty. David Lloyd, a former captain of Britain's Davis Cup team, was in typically robust form. "I know Greg very well and would put my life on the fact that he has not taken one single drug knowingly. It is just so alien to the type of person he is. On Davis Cup occasions he even used to check the fruit juice in case it might be the wrong kind."

As for Rusedski's assertion that he is being victimised by an inept organisation and a seriously flawed process, Lloyd forecast: "The amount of nandrolone involved is minute, smaller than a grain of salt. You wouldn't be able to see it."

Lloyd, who is in Sydney on business, had dinner with Rusedski last night as the player prepares to compete in this week's tournament in that city (where he has been drawn against a former drug-abuse time-server, Juan Ignacio Chela of Argentina) ahead of the Australian Open. "Greg needs to talk to people he can trust," said Lloyd. "It must be terrible for him. He has handled himself pretty well through the years and now he is going to be trying his butt off to beat this charge." Having produced a sporting first by opting to break the news of his positive test, the 30-year-old British No 2 swiftly followed up with the sort of heavy blows more readily associated with his left-handed serve. In a carefully pre-planned statement Rusedski savaged the drug-testing process in tennis and promised to fight to "the bitter end" against charges he says are "wrong, unfair and discriminatory".

A two-year ban imposed last May on the Czech Bohdan Ulihrach for nandro-lone use was rescinded when the ATP themselves admitted the drug could have been supplied by their own trainers in drinks and tablets. Six other pending cases were dropped for the same reason and, by Rusedski's arithmetic, 46 others beside himself have shown the same "analytical fingerprint" because of what was mistakenly administered by trainers. Yet when Petr Korda, then the Australian Open champion, was banned in 1999 for nandrolone use, Rusedski was harsh in his denunciation of the offence: "It is very hard for players to believe the drug got into Petr's body by accident," he said. "People are responsible for what is in their body."

Quite so, says Pickard, who has a place in tennis lore as the only one of Rusedski's coaches to have sacked his client, rather than the other way round. "There are some strange circumstances involved here, but at the end of the day Rusedski is responsible for what is in his body. I was very surprised, because it is a bit out of character, knowing him as I do, but if he has taken something, I am sorry, but he has to take the punishment.

"Desperation is possibly one way of looking at it, but an athlete would be silly to go down that road, because you never know when they are coming to check you. I think he will have a tough time." The actions of the ATP's trainers had been particularly hurtful, Pickard felt. "These young men trust these guys. They walk into the trainer's room dehydrated after playing four hours in 110 degrees and need something to replace the electrolytes and the salt. Then this happens."

David Higdon, the ATP's head of corporate communications, insisted: "There is no connection between those cases and this one", but that may not be so. Rusedski was out of action for nine months following foot and knee surgery until May last year, when he returned for the French Open. The ATP say they stopped giving out the suspect medication in that month but Rusedski, struggling with a cold, asked the trainers for something to help and now feels it was this which showed up in his test at the Indianapolis tournament two months later. This should make an interesting point of dispute in Montreal next month, in view of Rusedski's claim that he keeps a note of every vitamin and supplement he takes.

Rusedski's meticulous attitude was confirmed by Brad Langevad, the sports biomechanist who was part of the Cash team who rebuilt Rusedski's game and who then coached him for 10 months after Cash had walked out. "On the surface Greg sounds guilty as hell," said Langevad. "But he was such a freak in terms of health and discipline. He would eat perfectly, exercise at exactly the right times, go to the gym at the proper time. He had all his vitamins stacked on the table, all in order. His clothes were always neatly put away, rackets organised. If we were checking out, he was proud of the fact that he had packed the night before when I was still stuffing my bag.

"Greg was very much an advocate against drug-taking. He often spoke out against steroids, pointing out the people, men and women, he thought were on drugs. Whether he has had a change of mind in the last six months and decided he needed a bit of help at the end of his career may be a possibility. But on this issue I would be giving him the benefit of the doubt.

"I got him from 85 to 19 in the world and was convinced I could have taken him to No 1. But we had run out of steam emotionally after 10 months. That is a long time with someone who is a perfectionist and so intense. But I was broken-hearted because I had an athlete who could do a lot. I don't think Greg is quite as clever as Tim Henman, but he is by far the better athlete." One thing which limited Langevad's longevity, in Rusedski's eyes, was his friendship with Cash, who was unsympathetic to the nandrolone news. "He is going to be in big trouble," Cash forecast. "He should have known better, though maybe he did take it accidentally. It seems ridiculous he would shoot himself in the foot, but even if he is cleared he is going to get a rough ride in the locker rooms."

John Lloyd, Davis Cup coach during his brother's captaincy, lent weight to that Cash opinion. "Greg is not the most popular person on the tour but he would not cheat. He is too smart a bloke." That lack of popularity stems from Rusedski's quirky, obsessive behaviour on court, bordering on gamesmanship. There are the delaying tactics: frequent mopping of the face or interminable tying of laces; the hold-ups on resumption after change of ends to take an extra swig from a bottle or fold a banana skin into origami art. Rusedski even had a spell when he would go on court for a match and, seconds before it was due to begin, take a toilet break.

However, lack of popularity among his peers does not mean that Rusedski's defence can or should be dismissed. There was a rush to judgement, certainly in some sections of the British media. He sounds confident of acquittal and, given the ATP's ongoing ineptitude in so many of their affairs, it could happen.