What's wrong with water? Marathon man serves a warning to the nandrolone set

The Interview - Todd Martin: American in the twilight of his career is urging players to keep it safe and clean. Ronald Atkin in Barcelona meets a principled pioneer
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The Independent Online

Todd Martin's T-shirt bears a simple message: Life Is Good. Being Todd, of course, the words are of modest size. Despite standing 6ft 6in in his socks, Martin is arguably the most unassuming athlete produced by the United States. The nicest, too. "El Americano Diferente", Todd was called by the daily sports paper in Barcelona, where he was competing last week, his 14th season on the professional tennis tour.

Todd Martin's T-shirt bears a simple message: Life Is Good. Being Todd, of course, the words are of modest size. Despite standing 6ft 6in in his socks, Martin is arguably the most unassuming athlete produced by the United States. The nicest, too. "El Americano Diferente", Todd was called by the daily sports paper in Barcelona, where he was competing last week, his 14th season on the professional tennis tour.

Though closing in on the end of his time as a player, Martin will certainly not be lost to the game. His mild protests and long, meritorious service as president of the ATP Player Council notwithstanding, he is certain to be involved in working for the good, and the future, of the game. Good guys, nice guys, like him are too precious to be waved goodbye, especially when you look down the rocky road tennis has had to travel in the past 12 months.

Martin will be 34 in July and around the same time, during Wimbledon fortnight, he will hand over the role of president of his union, a post he has filled for nine of the past 11 years. Of those years, the last one has been the most arduous, summed up in one word: nandrolone.

The ATP did not so much shoot itself in the foot as lop off a limb with a blunt axe with the revelation that nandrolone had been supplied by its own training staff in supplements. Now, however, Martin believes control has been regained. "We have a strong anti-doping programme and it's time to let some of the dust settle from what has happened in the last 12 months."

That said, he does not hesitate to point the presidential finger, laying blame on what he calls "criminal" behaviour by the supplement manufacturers, whose products were unregulated and ingredients unlisted. He also condemns those players who continued to take the products of companies responsible for the banned substances. "They knew they were not supposed to take anything else [after the supplements ban] but they just said, 'We are taking these'. The fact that we have been dealing with so many traces of nandrolone that are below the positive test level is hopefully not as damaging to our sport as it should be to the producers of those supplemental beverages and powders.

"We all need certain nutrients in order to succeed physically. That's why I say it would be nice if the manufacturers were held accountable for some of the situations that their products have created. But also the players need to understand they are competing on a level playing field.

"There are guys out there who probably don't take much more than water and the food that they eat, but compete on a daily basis just as hard as everybody else but do a better job of preparing themselves. Or are possibly just genetically more capable of enduring the stress we put on our bodies. Genetically, Roger Federer is a much better athlete than I am, or ever was. But I just can't complain about it and say, 'Give me something so that I am on a par with him'."

Martin's supplements, he says, have been reduced to water and Gatorade. "That's it. At times I have taken a multi-vitamin which is more or less the most popular one in the States, but in the light of all that has gone on in the last six months I've stopped taking it as well. There are times when I look in the mirror and think I should probably be taking vitamin C or something, but instead I go to the refrigerator and drink some orange juice.

"After so many years I am well aware that I have won tournaments where all I drank was water. I have played well where all I drank was Gatorade. I have played well when I took multi-vitamins. But I have played well when I didn't, and also played badly in the same scenarios.

"It is just a matter of coming to terms with what truly is legal and what truly is safest, whatever will preserve the reputation that you want to have. For me, if I lose one, two, three or 10 matches because of it, I accept that. I know personally it would keep me awake a lot more than losing tennis matches keeps me awake."

Although he cut back on his schedule, playing just 14 tournaments last year, Martin was still required to take 10 drug tests, including one at his home. "That's not as much as it used to be when I was ranked higher," he says. "I think Federer was tested 25 times in 2003. Out of competition is something I have qualms about, allowing somebody to come to my house, but I understand it is necessary for every-body to have to comply with the rules we have. You can't question the strength of our testing programme.

"There have been mistakes made and [a direct reference to the Greg Rusedski case] some decisions by tribunals that weren't exactly congruent with previous decisions, but it's all done the right way."

Doing things the right way has been Martin's credo through a career that has landed him the disappointingly low number of eight singles titles, the last one in 1999. The British, who have lauded heroic failures ever since Balaclava, took Todd to their hearts at the 1996 Wimbledon, when he led MaliVai Washington 5-1 in the fifth set of their semi-final, only to fall apart, lose and miss the opportunity of winning the world's biggest event in the only year out of eight that Pete Sampras did not become champion. Runner-up is the nearest he has come to Grand Slam fame, at the US Open in 1999, where he lost to fellow American Andre Agassi, and the 1994 Australian Open, defeated by Sampras.

Clearly a big title, perhaps any title, is beyond him now but, within the limits of his insistence about spending more time at home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, with his wife, Amy, and their 15-month-old son, Jack, Martin is keen to play a fuller season which will, of course, take in the French Open and Wimbledon. Retirement, he says, is something he has tried "real hard" to avoid thinking about.

"After the Sydney Olympics I was dissatisfied with the way I had played, so I made a commitment to myself to play through Athens 2004. Now it doesn't look as though I'll be on the team, but I intend to play through the US Open in September. There is a good chance this will be my last year, but it's not decided yet because I still love competing. At this point I am not ready to turn my back, but I am confident that when the time comes I will be more than willing to say, 'OK, I have had my fill'."

Having suffered an elbow operation, a career-threatening knee condition and an ailing back, it is perhaps not surprising that Martin considers himself fitter and stronger these days. "In some ways I am playing better because I can understand more, though I'm not sure I can execute quite as well. But maybe it's not a fair comparison, because everybody around me is so much better than they were when I was 25. That's a big change. The young guys hit the ball so well it's tough to dictate to them. And everybody moves so much better, including me."

Todd used to be rated one of the big boomers, but says his serve never clocked more than 135mph - "and that was probably a faulty radar gun". That Andy Roddick has upped the record to 152 doesn't surprise him. "Conventional logic says if 10 years ago they were hitting 135 and now it's 150, why not more? But I hope not, I hope there is a max, because I feel it is more where you hit 'em rather than how hard. I should have beaten Andy in Memphis this year on an indoor court with fast balls. He hit a couple over 140 and I handled them, so the pace is not an issue for me.

"Jim Courier did a great job of showing the rest what is possible. He could only hit forehands, but almost every one could have been a winner. But Jim struggled when others learned to hit the ball just as hard. Many look at Andy as being a similar animal, and it could well be in a few years everybody hits the ball as hard as him."

In pursuit of that goal, says Martin, many of today's pros are playing too much. "A lot of guys now choose to enter a lot of tournaments and for a stretch they do real well until they have to withdraw from an event in order to recover."

The tournament going on around us in Barcelona was a case in point. Three of the top attractions, Spain's No 1, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Guillermo Coria and Marat Safin, had all pulled out. "If I could write the rules, that's something I would like to see changed," he said. "A player would honour his commitments but would also make fewer commitments. I know the guys wouldn't need quite so many supplements if they were a little more forward-thinking with their schedules."

Tennis would do well to heed comments like that from the sport's Mr Nice Guy.

BIOGRAPHY: Todd Christopher Martin

Born: 8 July 1970 in Hinsdale, Illinois.

Family: Married to Amy, son Jack.

Turned pro: 1990.

Career prize money: $8m.

Singles titles: 8 - Coral Springs (1993); Memphis (1994, '95); Queen's (1994); Sydney (1996, '99); Barcelona and Stockholm (1998).

Best Grand Slams: Australian Open - runner-up ('94). French Open - fourth round ('91). Wimbledon - semi-finals ('94, '96). US Open - runner-up ('99).

Year-end singles rankings (1990-2003): 269, 133, 87, 13, 10, 18, 12, 81, 16, 7, 55, 57, 47, 69.

Highest ranking: 4 (13 Sept '99).

Also: member of US Davis Cup-winning team in 1995. Two-handicap golfer.