Greg Rusedski must have felt like a Christian about to be tossed to the lions when he walked on to centre court yesterday at the adidas International, his first foray into the public arena since admitting that he had failed a drugs test.
As it turned out, the crowd here was warm, Rusedski was focused and his 7-6, 7-6 win over Argentina's Juan Ignacio Chela gave him a boost that he badly needed. "This match gave me a lot of pleasure," the British No 2 said. "It's given me a lift, to come out and play this well, to go on the tennis court and be able to do my job properly."
For a first-round meeting at a minor tournament, the match at the Sydney International Tennis Centre attracted an exceptional amount of attention. That attention was wholly focused on the Canadian-born Briton, although Chela's background - he was suspended for three months in 2001 after testing positive for a banned substance - gave the encounter an added frisson.
Rusedski shocked the tennis world last week by announcing that a sample he gave at a tournament in Indianapolis last July contained an illegal level of nandrolone, an anabolic steroid. He then issued a lengthy statement proclaiming his innocence and casting doubt on the testing procedures of the ATP, the governing body of the men's tour. His case will be heard by a tribunal in Montreal next month.
Yesterday he was both dignified and defiant. "I'm not going to hide," he said, in his first unrehearsed comments since his statement. "I'm going to go out here and I'm going to play. I'm going to do my best. This is my job and I love it. That's why I'm here."
But he admitted he had probably never played a match in such emotionally demanding circumstances. It had been on a par with, or perhaps worse than the crucial singles rubber in which he lost to Morocco's Hicham Arazi last September, thereby failing to save Great Britain from demotion from the Davis Cup World Group.
That was the 30-year-old left-hander's last match before he turned up, patently rusty, at the AAPT Championship in Adelaide last week. Rusedski, who was kept on the sidelines by injuries for nearly eight months in 2003, lost in the second round. Yesterday, though, his tennis was markedly improved and he forced the pace, dominating Chela more than the scoreline suggested.
Rusedski, who described the match as "very intense", celebrated by punching the air. "It meant a lot to me today," he said.
His defence is based on the fact that he is one of 47 top players to test positive for nandrolone since August 2002, with all the samples showing an unexplained "common analytical fingerprint". He concludes that they were contaminated, or that the ATP's testing procedures are in some other way flawed.
Eight of the 47 samples, including his, exceeded the legal limit for the substance. The ATP decided not to take action against the other seven, which dated from an earlier period, because it believed a nutritional supplement given out by its trainers might be to blame. "I think everyone involved in the situation is innocent," Rusedski said yesterday.
While he is determined to clear his name, Chela said that, judging by his experience, the finger-pointing never stopped. "It's very difficult [to change people's perceptions of you]," he said. "It's something you never forget. It's something terrible. I wish nobody to be under these circumstances. It's a very ugly situation that you have to go through. I hope he can go through this in the best possible way."
Rusedski said fellow players were supportive and he believed they would take action on his behalf if the tribunal found against him. That notion was dismissed, somewhat cynically, by Todd Woodbridge, the vice-president of the ATP players' council, who said there was no "one for all and all for one" mentality. "It's a pretty selfish world in tennis. Everybody is playing head to head, and they want to have a leg up. They know he [Rusedski] is going through turmoil, and I think they would be trying to use that to their advantage."
The respected Australian doubles specialist was scathing about Rusedski's aggressive public defence. "What he has done is show the players this isn't the way to go about fighting a drug case," Woodbridge said.
"If he is innocent, he has got an opportunity to prove that," he added. "He is basically putting himself on trial to the public. I think that is unwise. As an individual athlete, it hurts your reputation. My job is to go into the locker-room and ram down the guys' throats that they can't do what Greg has done."Reuse content