Four More: Fall Tennis Reading

Friday, September 27, 2013 /by
Photo by Anita Aguilar
Photo by Anita Aguilar

Anti-Big 4 Week continues at TENNIS.com, with Steve Tignor's look at the Marin Cilic and Viktor Troicki tribunal summaries.

*****

“He now speaks fluent English and knows a little French, but not enough to hold a conversation.”

Why, I wondered as I came across this sentence, would the ITF include this seemingly trivial bit of information about Marin Cilic at the start of its summary of the hearing held to investigate his recent failed drug test?

I wondered the same thing when I read the equally tangential three sentences that followed it:

“The player’s family members are very close to each other. His parents have consistently supported his career. His brothers also play tennis.”

It wasn’t until eight pages later that I had my answer. These weren’t Wikipedia-like pieces of useless knowledge, after all. They were establishing details, and they would have made any short-story writer proud.

If you’re looking for a good fall tennis read, I’d recommend leaving Infinite Jest on the shelf for a few more days and checking out the tribunal summaries of the ITF's recent cases involving Cilic and Viktor Troicki instead. In their mix of the tragic and the bureaucratic, they’re positively Kafka-esque. You’ll shake your head, and maybe even shed a tear, at the circumstances, misunderstandings, and various language barriers that conspire against the two protagonists, and the fatal choices each man makes. 

This is especially true for Cilic, who is the more sympathetic main character. Troicki, who was banned for 18 months for refusing to take a blood test this spring, is portrayed as a victim of his own obstinacy and wishful thinking. Cilic, who was banned for nine months for testing positive for an illegal substance, is primarily seen as a victim of...just what it says above, his flawed French and his reliance on his family. He also failed to turn a package onto its side. 

The outline of the Croat's story goes like this: In 2010, Cilic’s trainer thought he was underweight and had him begin taking a glucose product that contained a substance called “nikotinamid.” In keeping with his professional responsibility to know what he puts into his body, Cilic researched the substance, found out it was harmless, and never failed a test because of it. 

At the start of 2012, he began taking glucose with creatine, to help make that unpleasant-tasting (but legal) drug easier to ingest. This April Cilic was in Monte Carlo to play the tournament there. Instead of staying in the apartment he keeps in that city, he went to a hotel before his first round to “prepare mentally.” At the same time, he realized he was low on glucose, so he had his mother go to a pharmacy near his apartment that he had used in the past. His mother, who doesn’t speak French, brought a package of glucose to the counter and said the words “tennis professional” to the pharmacist. She got, in the ITF's words, “no reaction, due to the language barrier”:

“A French-speaking man helped with translation. She heard him use the words ‘tennis professionel.’ The pharmacist moved the packet towards Mrs. Cilic, which she took as an indication that the product was safe...Convinced by what she had seen and heard, she bought the packet, took it to the apartment, and left it in the kitchen.”

A few days later, Cilic, after losing his second-round match, went through some tense practice sessions. His family wasn't getting along with his coach, Bob Brett (he and Brett would split soon after). Cilic then returned to his apartment and found the glucose packets his mother had bought. 

“He asked Mrs. Cilic about them, and she said no other form of glucose was available at the pharmacy and that she had checked that it was safe for a professional tennis player to take them. He looked at the front of the packet and saw the French word “sucer,” which he thought meant sugar (secer in Croatian). [Sucer means “suck” in French, as in, these are tablets to suck on]. He noticed that only two ingredients were listed—glucose and “nicéthamide.” He thought nicéthamide was the same as nikotinamid, which he knew to be harmless. He thought these were sugar and vitamin tablets and looked no further.”

Could there be a more unfortunate chain of linguistic circumstances than this? Cilic misinterpreted not one, but two words on the ingredients list—the only two words. And can there be anything sadder than having your own mother contribute to getting you banned for nine months? 

More crucially for Cilic, though, there was a leaflet inside the packet that warned, in French, “that the tablet contained an active ingredient which can cause a positive test for a person subject to doping control.” Also, the word “médicament” (medicine) was printed on the side of the packet. According to the tribunal summary, “Anyone reading the side of the packet or the leaflet, even with only a very limited knowledge of French, would easily have identified the danger for an athlete with anti-doping responsibilities.” 

Cilic never looked at the side of the packet or the leaflet. He started taking the tablets the next day. The tribunal determined, after a lengthy and lawlerly discussion of the meanings of the terms “performance enhancement” and “negligence,” that he was innocent of the former and guilty of the latter. Cilic, in other words, hadn’t intended to enhance his performance illegally, but he also hadn’t taken the precautions expected of every tennis player to make sure a banned substance didn’t enter his system. The normal sentence for a first doping offense is two years; with those mitigating circumstances, he was given nine months, backdated to June 26, which is when Cilic pulled out of Wimbledon to begin serving a voluntary, unannounced suspension. He’ll be eligible to play again at the end of January 2014. Cilic is appealing.

The length of the suspension seems right to me. It was an unlucky series of events, but as the tribunal decision makes clear, Cilic knew that whatever was in his body was his responsibility. After he tested positive, it took his trainer just 10 minutes on the Internet to discover what those glucose tablets really contained. In general, Cilic's tribunal summary, like Troicki's, comes off as professional and convincing. I’ve met both players and watched them for a long time, and the descriptions of them seemed accurate.

Still, there’s the matter of Cilic’s three-month “silent ban,” which lasted from Wimbledon until the decision was announced two weeks ago. I understand the reasons for not announcing a positive drug test immediately, before any defense is made. But the fact that a player can voluntarily begin serving a suspension without anyone knowing about it, and possibly lie about why he’s pulling out of a tournament, isn't a good alternative. Cilic knew about the positive test even as he reached the final at Queen’s. He withdrew before his second-round match at Wimbledon, citing a knee injury, to begin serving a suspension. The ITF says the injury was a cover-up "to avoid adverse publicity"; he says it was real. Cilic may have believed that, once his hearing was over, he wouldn’t have to serve any more time or make his failed test public. I’d say having the player serve the full suspension after the decision is the best way to keep the trust of the game’s fans, who now may be wondering whether any injury withdrawal is legitimate.

For those fans who want to know more about tennis’s anti-doping system, as well as a little of the players’ daily lives as they relate to it, the Troicki and Cilic decisions are—unfortunately for them—the best places to start.

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