The downfall of a teenage tennis prodigy

Sesil Karatantcheva burst on to the scene at 14 but at 16 is now fighting a two-year drugs ban after her first full professional season, writes John Roberts
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The Independent Online

Sesil Karatantcheva seemed to be a typical eastern European tennis prodigy. She even picked up her first lines of English by listening to the Spice Girls. On Wednesday, however, the 16-year-old Karatantcheva was suspended for two years after twice testing positive for the banned steroid nandrolone, during the French Open last June and out of competition in Tokyo last July.

Karatantcheva is the first female player to be banned for taking a performance-enhancing drug. Lourdes Dominguez Lino, of Spain, was suspended for three months after testing positive for cocaine in 2002.

Karatantcheva's mentor is her father, Radoslav, a Bulgarian rowing champion who once placed seventh in the World Cup. Radoslav introduced Sesil to tennis when she was aged five. She did not like the sport at first but - in common with her mother, a national volleyball champion - she had good eye-hand combination and quickly developed exceptional skills.

Nick Bollettieri saw her playing in an international junior tournament and invited her to train at his tennis academy in Florida. From the age of 12 to 15, Karatantcheva spent six months at the Bollettieri academy and six months in Bulgaria. Wherever she trained, Radoslav would coach her.

In 2004 Karatantcheva won the junior singles title at the French Open, and at the start of 2005 Bollettieri tipped her as a face to watch on the WTA Tour. Last March, however, after a disagreement about training methods, Karatantcheva and her father left Bollettieri and they have have not been back since.

The feisty Karatantcheva had a spat with Maria Sharapova in 2004 during a practice session at Indian Wells, California, and vowed to "kick her [Sharapova's] ass". When they met in the second round at Wimbledon last year the Russian Sharapova, the defending champion, won, 6-0, 6-1.

Karatantcheva had arrived at Wimbledon with an enhanced reputation, having defeated the former world No 1 Venus Williams in the third round at the French Open. The Bulgarian went on to the quarter-finals, losing to Elena Likhovtseva, of Russia. It was after that match that Karatantcheva tested positive for the first time.

Along with the two-year ban, Karatantcheva loses the £76,000 prize-money and world ranking points from the French Open and will also forfeit ranking points and prize-money from the tournaments following the French Open.

Yesterday Karatantcheva decided she would fight the ban. "I will use my right to appeal before a higher authority," she said. "I'm going to appeal against the decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport."

Her father added: "The tribunal's ruling is subjective and one-sided. There is evidence that the tribunal did not consider."

Karatantcheva's lawyer, Darina Zinovieva, said that she would not deny the positive tests but would seek to prove that she had not taken banned substances.

Zinovieva said: "We have very strong evidence, things which were not taken into account at the hearing of the ITF tribunal. We'll file an appeal as soon as possible, within the three-week deadline."

Karatantcheva said that the reason for the positive tests was "a personal matter". She had told the French sport daily L'Equipe that the high level of nandrolone in her system was due to a pregnancy that later ended in miscarriage. A pregnancy test carried out by a French laboratory on the player's urine sample, however, was negative, L'Equipe said. The International Tennis Federation's independent anti-doping tribunal rejected the pregnancy claim.

Even if she loses the appeal, Karatantcheva, who had a ranking of No 41, is determined to return to the sport. She told a news conference in Sofia yesterday: "I'll keep training, I'm only 16. I'll be back, and my return will be thunderous."

Mariano Puerta, of Argentina, who was banned for eight years for his second offence after failing a drugs test following the French Open men's singles final against Rafael Nadal, is already 27. He was the first tennis player to receive a ban of more than two years.

Before the events of this week, Bulgarian women's tennis was notable for the exploits of the Maleeva sisters - Manuela, Katerina and Magdalena, from Sofia. At one point, all three were ranked in the world's top 20. They each could boast a victory against Martina Navratilova. The nine-times Wimbledon champion consoled herself with the memory of having beaten their mother, Yulia, the nine-times Bulgarian champion who coached her daughters.