Thursday July 16th, 2009

While the 16 remaining players in the men's draw competed at Wimbledon on June 29, Richard Gasquet was a few miles from the All England Club, fighting for his career at a tribunal hearing. Three months earlier, the French player had tested positive for cocaine, triggering a two-year ban under the World Anti-Doping Agency code. In a sport with no guaranteed contracts and a short career shelf life, this was, potentially, akin to a professional death sentence.

But in a considerable upset, the International Tennis Federation's panel ruled Wednesday that Gasquet inadvertently took the cocaine. He was cleared to play after completing a 2½-month ban, which ended Wednesday. The three-person tribunal found credible Gasquet's defense that the trace amounts of cocaine had entered his system when he kissed a woman in a Miami nightclub.

"We have found the player to be a person who is shy and reserved, honest and truthful, and a man of integrity and good character," the tribunal said in its ruling. "He is neither a cheat nor a user of drugs for recreational purposes."

While Gasquet declared himself "elated," his fate contrasted sharply with that Martina Hingis -- odd given the symmetry between them up to that point. It was two years ago that Hingis tested positive for cocaine metabolite. Like Gasquet, it was only a trace amount, significantly less, in fact. Hingis' amount was so small that, had she registered the same amount in a test administered by the U.S. military, it would not have triggered a positive result. Like Gasquet, she claimed to be dumbfounded, vigorously denying taking the drug and being left to speculate how the substance got into her system.

As with Gasquet, the case was circumstantially suspect. Over the course of her career, Hingis had been subject to dozens of random, unannounced tests and passed them all. Would she really purposefully ingest cocaine right before Wimbledon, when she knew she would be tested? There were additional questions about the "chain of custody." Hingis' sample sat in a Wimbledon locker and was transferred to the WADA lab in Montreal, and she suggested that the specimen somehow became contaminated during that time. After all, when she later submitted to a hair follicle test for cocaine, there was no evidence of use.

But unlike Gasquet, Hingis didn't bother with a rigorous appeal. Could she have contacted the cocaine handling money or drinking out of someone else's water glass? Sure. But, really, who knew? And besides, under the strict liability standard, it didn't much matter. She tested positive, therefore she was guilty. Rather than "take on this doping machinery," as she put it at the time, Hingis declined to go through a long and expensive appeal process. Instead she quit at 27, retiring for a second time.

Her case, though, proceeded and even in retirement, Hingis, a five-time Grand Slam champion and Hall of Fame shoo-in, was hit with a two-year ban. Coincidentally, on the day Gasquet was appealing his result in London last month, Hingis was in town as well. She'd visited friends at Wimbledon but met them at a house a few hundred yards from the courts; as a condition of her ban, she isn't even allowed to attend a Grand Slam event as a spectator.

Tennis has never stood accused of doing much of anything conventionally, and on doping, it zigs where others zag. Other sports grapple with flawed protocol, obvious testing loopholes and laughably light penalties. Tennis has the opposite problem. A condition for being an Olympic sport, it abides by the rigid WADA code. And without a Don Fehr or Billy Hunter figure to advocate (not an altogether bad thing, you might argue), the players have signed off on testing that might be too rigorous. (Around the same time Gasquet was clipped for cocaine -- a banned and illicit drug, yes, but a recreational one, not generally considered to enhance performance -- Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez was caught for a female fertility drug known to be part of a steroid regimen. His punishment? Fifty games.)

In a tacit admission that Hingis was treated too harshly, after her case, the ITF sent players a memo outlining changes to the anti-doping policy. A small clause reads: Where the substance found in the player's sample is a Specified Substance and the player establishes how it got into her system and that there was no intent to enhance performance, the sanction for a first offense may be anything from a warning to a 24-month ban.

It was this bit of discretion that likely enabled Gasquet to escape a two-year ban. The Hingis Rule, we may as well call it.

Even after spending the last three months sidelined, Gasquet is still ranked a respectable No. 32. He will resume his career in a few weeks, and, save for 75 days of unrealized income (and perhaps some sleep), he lost little. Even his reputation survived, especially given the dramatically commuted sentence and glowing praise for his character contained in the decision.

Given Gasquet's fragile and gentle nature, you can't help but be happy for him. You can't help but think justice was served. Still, when Gasquet is done thanking (and paying) his lawyers, you'd hope he'd reach out to Hingis and express a debt of gratitude for her having "taken one for the team." And you'd also hope that the ITF would contact Hingis as well, and rescind her ban immediately. That's the least it could do for a player who didn't want to fight doping machinery, but sure got caught up in its gears.

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