Drawing Blood

Friday, July 26, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

The Viktor Troicki case puts me in mind of Bill Clinton. “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” the Southern lawyer once known as Slick Willie said in his defense during the Monica Lewinsky Grand Jury trial in 1998. 

In the Troicki case, your view of the verdict may depend upon what you think the meaning of the word “should” is. Or, more precisely, it depends on how you think that word, "should," should be interpreted.

According to the findings of a three-person tribunal in Troicki's anti-doping case (you can read the  summary of it here), Dr. Elena Gorodilova told the Serb, after he declined to have her administer a mandatory blood test in Monte Carlo in April, that it “should” be OK if he wrote a letter to the ITF explaining that he felt too ill to have blood drawn. Both Troicki and his coach, Jack Reader, originally stated that was the word Dr. Gorodilova used. 

But that’s not how Troicki would remember it for long. He would later claim to anti-doping authorities that, in the words of the tribunal’s summary, “Dr. Gorodilova had assured him 100 percent, on four or even five occasions, that if he set out his reasons [for refusing the test] in a letter to the ITF, all would be well.”

That’s the crux of the case: The words of the doctor vs. their interpretation by Troicki. Virtually everything else is straightforward and agreed upon by all parties. Troicki was feeling ill during his 6-1, 6-2 loss to Jarkko Nieminen in Monte Carlo. Afterward, he agreed to take a urine test, but didn’t sign an agreement to take a blood test, because (a) he has a fear of needles inherited from his father (in case you’re wondering, “needle phobia” is indeed genetic), and (b) he was sick enough that he thought he might pass out from the strain of an injection. The doctor tried to assure him that everything would be OK, but Troicki, who knew there was a possibility that he would be sanctioned, still refused. The doctor instructed Troicki to write a letter to the ITF’s head of anti-doping, Dr. Stuart Miller, to explain why he wasn’t submitting to the test. They also tried to get in touch with Miller by phone or fax, but couldn’t reach him. The next morning, the doctor, correctly fearing that there would be repercussions, administered a blood test to Troicki.

Dr. Gorodilova testified that she never gave any assurances to Troicki that his letter would be sufficient to get him off the hook; Troicki testified that she had assured him "100 percent." The tribunal sided with the doctor and against the player. In the process, they used a little psychoanalysis to decide that Troicki—out of fear of having to take the test, and the wishful thinking came with that fear—convinced himself later that the doctor had assured him everything would be fine, when in reality she hadn’t. Troicki’s own testimony, they concluded, contradicted him. He said at one point that he wanted to call Dr. Miller, just to be sure everything would be OK; it was only in retrospect, after failing to reach Miller, that he thought the letter would be enough.

In other words, Troicki wanted to believe that he had been fully excused from having to give blood, so he made himself believe it. 

“We are content to accept that by and large he had genuine belief in the accuracy of the account to us of the relevant event,” the tribunal members wrote of Troicki. “However, that does not mean that this account was in fact accurate. It is very frequently the case that witnesses have persuaded themselves of the truth of what they purport to recall, despite the fact that the truth in reality lies elsewhere.”

The tribunal members also noted that Troicki, “came across to us as someone prone to exaggeration to make his point.” You have to wonder if they caught Troicki’s act in Rome the next month, when he stopped a match to tell chair umpire Cedric Mourier that a ball mark was visible from space (see the "epic meltdown" here). That’s not something that will make a man seem especially rational or level-headed. The tribunal met in July; the Troicki meltdown was replayed on televisions everywhere in May.

The thought that kept getting louder in my head as I read the evidence was: “Dude, you should have just taken the test.” I believe that Troicki was sick and scared, and I don’t have any reason to think he’s doping, but he had submitted to five blood tests in the past, and this time the doctor went out of her way to show him her credentials and assure him everything would be fine. The tribunal was right to sanction Troicki; there were extenuating circumstances, but he essentially refused to take a drug test. That’s something that, at age 27 and after seven years on tour, he knows could get him in trouble, whether he writes an excuse note or not.

At the same time, much of this case seemed to come down to personal believability, and even likability. The judges were impressed by the experience and professionalism of Dr. Gorodilova, as well as the ATP official  who was on hand in Monte Carlo. They were distinctly unimpressed by Troicki and his coach, Jack Reader. 

“We consider that Mr. Reader,” they wrote of his testimony, “without having given any proper thought to the matter, was prepared to say whatever he felt would be likely to assist his player in avoiding a sanction.”

I can see where the volatile Troicki and the ultra-laid-back Reader, a chain-smoking ex-hippie from Australia, would not make ideal courtroom presences. But I think the doctor, whatever her credentials and experience, bears some responsibility, too. If she did say that a note to Miller “should” be enough, as Troicki and Reader claim, that’s halfway to an assurance, and more than she should have said. Even if she never used that word, she didn't make it absolutely clear to Troicki that the letter might not be sufficient to excuse him.

Ultimately, though, Troicki is the one who’s responsible for not taking the test, and he should face a suspension. The 18 months he’s been handed, however, is too long. The normal penalty for failing to take a drug test is two years (Troicki was given a six-month reduction because of the “stress” he was under that day in Monte Carlo). This means that missing a test is the equivalent of failing a test. I can see the logic behind that—you don’t want players who think they might fail one to skip it and get less time, and you don’t want players to do what Troicki essentially did in Monte Carlo, which was to say, “I can’t do it today, but don’t worry I’ll take it next time.” But is a skipped test really the same as a failed test? Not in this case, in my opinion. I think cutting the sentence in half, to nine months, makes sense for Troicki in this situation, in which there is some gray area. That’s still a lot of time away for a guy in the prime of his career.

Tennis should be commended for handing down stiff penalties—first-offense test failures in American sports like baseball and football don’t even put you on the sidelines for half a season. But they shouldn’t be so stiff that they constantly need to be reduced in individual cases.

As for Troicki, I hope he can get his time away lessened, I hope his fellow players are watching and learning from this case, and I hope he reads the tribunal’s report. As it says, your own beliefs—of what a doctor told you or where a ball landed—won't change the truth.

Before commenting, please read our Posting Guidelines.

Subscribe to Tennis Magazine - Just $10 per year
Top Ranked Players
More Rankings