Rokkon the Boat

by: Peter Bodo | November 03, 2010

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95590393 by Pete Bodo

One of my articles of faith regarding tennis has recently been confirmed by Christophe Rochus. That conviction is that if you want to get a lot of attention in tennis, you must do one of three things: Beat Roger Federer. Beat Rafael Nadal. Or make accusations about doping.

Rochus, the 5-7 Belgian drop-shot artist also known as "Rokkon" (which I assume is a variant of "Rock on!" as in, "Rock on, dude!") is a lover of Jack Russell terriers. Somehow, that seems really fitting; like a Jack Russell, Rochus never seemed to understand that he's a small dog.

Still, Rochus was 0-2 for his career against Federer, and 0-2 versus Nadal. That leaves option three, which Rochus exploited to the max recently, when he made some disturbing allegations about doping in the Belgian newspaper La Derniere Heure. "Derniere" means "last," and this may be the last we hear of Rochus for a while, given that he's currently ranked No. 237 and headed further south. It appears that he's called it a career, and I'll miss him—even though his claims about doping seem ill-considered and irresponsible.

I say that because I've learned—or is it "decided"?—over the years that if you're going to shoot your mouth off about doping, you'd better have something to back it up—something beyond, "Don't you see how waxy so-and-so's skin looks?" If you don't have anything beyond the most flimsy circumstantial or connect-the-dots evidence, common decency demands that you either keep your mouth shut or couch your comments in the most broad, general terms. It just isn't fair to any of the players, especially those whose activities are in question, to do otherwise.

I learned this myself the hard way, after writing a few relatively careful but highly speculative posts on the subject a few years ago (at this blog). I don't want to dig them out or link to them because, frankly, I'm somewhat ashamed of them. Being familiar with firearms, I should have known enough to remember that you only aim a gun at something you intend to kill. And you'd better have a good reason to kill anything.

So let's start here. Doping exists in tennis. We've learned that it exists in pretty much all pro sports. If it didn't, nobody ever would have been suspended for it, right? This should not come as Stop the Presses! news to anyone. But when does doping (or substitute betting on matches) become so ubiquitous a problem that it damages the credibility of the sport? Not at any point at which we've arrived, although I like to think I'm ready to take the bad news if we ever do get there.

In the precis of the interview, Rochus is quoted as saying, "There's a lot of cheating. Simply, people don't like to talk about it. I simply would like to stop the pretending. This hypocrisy is exasperating."

I'm not sure what hypocrisy Rochus is talking about. Abusers are first and foremost cheaters; hypocrites would be those who know for certain that doping goes on, and on a significant scale, but choose to ignore it, or claim it doesn't. The implication here is that the guys on the tour know it goes on, but have engaged in a kind of conspiracy of silence. This is the first time I've heard anything like that claim. I also don't believe any of the players would knowingly let others unfairly take food off their plates without kicking up a fuss about it.

Secondly, Rochus said: "I've seen things like everyone else. For me, it's inconceivable to play for five hours in the sun and come back like a rabbit the next day. I remember a match against a guy whose name I will not say. I won the first set 6-1, very easily. He went to the bathroom and came back metamorphosized. He led 5-3 in the second set and when I came back to 5-5... his nose began bleeding. I told myself it was all very strange."

I'm not so sure what's so strange about a guy recovering from a bad 1-6 set to turn a match around. And we've seen players find a seemingly prenatural surge of energy on many occasions. It happens all the time, in all sports. I'm not sure what nosebleed suggests, other than a really bad cold or a whopping cocaine habit, but it's pretty bold to infer from that experience that the incident suggests doping on an institutional scale. Maybe Rochus just drew a guy with nasal passage issues. Or even a cokehead. Given how many pro tennis matches take place in a typical year, and how many players qualify for tournaments, I wouldn't find either option very strange at all.

The most specific and damaging of allegations Rochus made were about his countrywoman Justine Henin, and her abrupt withdrawal from the tour in 2008. Rochus apparently said: "I heard [the rumours] like you. All I can say is, I found it surprising, her sudden stop without apparent reason. Usually, champions like this announce several months in advance and do a sort of farewell tour."

Let's start with this: the original doping claims against Henin were made after the 2003 U.S. Open, and by Leo Clijsters, the father of Henin's Belgian rival, Kim. Filip de Wulf, a former French Open semifinalist turned journalist, appeared to back up Leo. These remain the most serious, resonant doping claims ever made against a high-ranked player. And while nobody knows the objective truth about them, wouldn't it be a horrible injustice to Henin if we took the words of Clijsters and DeWulf at face value, with no concrete evidence? Are you so confident in your judgment—or the word of some third party—that you would insist that Henin was doping?

Fast forward to 2008. I don't know where Rochus got this business about champions liking to announce their intent to retire months in advance in order to go on a "farewell tour." I'm still waiting for Elena Dementieva to post the dates of hers, and I don't really recall Kim Clijsters' victory lap of a few years ago. Nor that of Andre Agassi, or Pete Sampras. Were they doping, too? This is such poor reasoning on the part of Rochus that it makes me wince.

Rochus freely admitted that he'd been given 10-15 doping tests a year for a decade, and also received a warning letter from the ATP when he shot his mouth off on the same subject some time ago. I don't know if 15 tests is enough; and I don't know if the testing regimen is sufficiently rigorous to catch violators. To make an informed judgment about those things, I'd probably have to spend the better part of six months dedicating my life to penetrating the sinister and depressing world of doping, and doping police work. I have no desire to do that, so I keep my speculations to myself. The important thing is that I don't think Rochus put in those six months, either. Perhaps it could become his second career.

Doping is a subject that reminds me in some ways of the little I know about pornography. Some people seem inordinately attracted to it. Both subjects appear to have some sort of addictive power, and foster some sort of obesssion that can balloon out of control. Why would someone convince himself that this player or that is a doper, and then make it some kind of a mission to expose him or her? I can't imagine that obsessively wanting to discover some real or imagined secret harbored by someone else, or some group of people, is an entirely healthy enterprise. But I'm pretty sure it's one you can be sucked into, if you're susceptible to it. In some ways, speculating about doping also is a sporting equivalent of political conspiracy theories. Dots, after all, are there to be connected. I prefer that someone armed with data and expertise—someone in a position to actually know—does the connecting.

I don't think, from what I've read, that Rochus is in a postion to connect those dots. I would be more inclined to value his comments if he had some firsthand experience—being approached by someone who had PEDs to peddle; a fellow player confiding in him about the benefits of doping; encountering a colleague injecting himself with a dose of performance-enhancing drugs. But he offers none of those firsthand experiences, beyond playing some guy, somewhere, who came back from a set down to give Rochus a match despite also having a bloody nose.

Many years ago, Boris Becker confided (and I published the confession, with his blessing) that at the end of one particularly grueling year (the best of his career, if memory serves), he was a mental and physical wreck, and survived to end the year on a high note only because he received an injection of calf's blood. It was a creepy thing to think about and, as far as I could work out, not a violation of any of the rules that existed at the time. Players always seek an edge, there's no doubt about that. Just what they're willing to risk, both in terms of their health and their livelihood and reputation, is open the question.

I'm in no position to answer that question with anything like authority, so I'll leave it to the administrators of the game and the scientists to provide those answers—or charges. My job, as I see it, begins when a credible, fact-based claim is made. The glories, such as they are, rained down on someone who exposes a cheat or deception, hold no appeal for me.

I don't know what that original admonition from the ATP said, but if I were to write a letter to Rochus today, it would be a brief one: Shut your piehole, until you can make a specific charge against a specific person or persons—and back it up.

I have a feeling that Rochus is going to regret saying the things he did when he gets an earful from the ATP, or Henin, or maybe even that dude with the bloody nose. But given his comments, I can also see him interpreting censure of that kind as a warning that he take part in this alleged conspiracy of silence. 

After the noise he just made, a little silence might be a good thing.

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