The Redemption Question

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To wind up 2014, I’m reposting 14 articles I liked from this past season. I’ll put up one each day until January 5, when the new season begins. At Wimbledon, I wondered how should we feel about the resurgence of two players, Marin Cilic and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova, a year after their doping-related suspensions.

WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND—There have been some notable victory celebrations at The Championships so far. Alizé Cornet’s grass kiss. Grigor Dimitrov’s goal-scoring slide. Rafael Nadal’s raised fist after his win over Lukas Rosol. But perhaps the most heartfelt have come from Barbora Zahlavova Strycova and Marin Cilic. After each of her back-to-back upsets over Li Na and Caroline Wozniacki, Zahlavova Strycova walked off biting her lower lip and grinning from ear to ear. After his post-dusk thumping of Tomas Berdych last week, Cilic leapt and shouted with uncharacteristic abandon. 

For both players, these wins have been cathartic, and it's easy to understand why. Last year, Zahlavova Strycova and Cilic each spent time watching from the sidelines while serving doping-related suspensions, suspensions that both players protested. Cilic pulled out of Wimbledon in 2013 to begin a voluntary suspension for testing positive for the banned substance nikethamide; four months later, he would have it reduced to time served when an appeals court agreed that he hadn’t knowingly tried to dope. Zahlavova Strycova tested positive in the fall of 2012 for the stimulant sibutramine and was banned for six months; she maintained that she had ingested the substance through a weight-loss supplement called Berry Thin. She was also found, by the ITF, not to have knowingly tried to enhance her performance. BZS returned last April; Cilic returned in October.

After her win on Monday, Zahlavova Strycova continued her protest, and admitted that she had almost quit tennis while she was away.

“I felt like everything is unfair,” she said. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to be here and see the same people every week.' I was empty.”

It took two months for BZS to get the bug again.

“Then I missed it,” the 28-year-old said. “I missed the feeling of working out, the feeling of winning matches, and being on tour....Then I was, 'Yeah, what I’m going to do?' I really like it. I love the sport.”

Now that her Wimbledon run—BZS has reached the final eight for the first time—has helped put the nightmare of 2013 farther behind her, Zahlavova Strycova says that her time away helped motivate her and put the sport in perspective. It might, it turns out, have been the break that the 12-year veteran needed.

“I like it because I didn’t play for six months,” BZS said, “and it show me also some other stuff. I enjoy much more now. It was tough, but on the other hand, it also brings me some positive things. I’m seeing the sport a little bit different now.”

Cilic has also described his time away, fighting for his reputation, as a nightmare. And like BZS, his own first trip to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon has helped him realize that his time away wasn’t wasted.   

“This time off that I had,” said Cilic, who followed up his win over Berdych with another over Jeremy Chardy today, “I tried to use it in a very positive way to try to learn some new things. When I came back, I was much more eager to do better on the court and to use every opportunity that I have.

“For me,” Cilic also said, “most important part was that I found some mental toughness out of all that. When I came back, it sort of gave me more motivation to work and use every opportunity I have to be prepared for every tournament.”

On one level, Cilic's and Zahlavova Strycova's stories can be seen as the traditionally inspiring tales of vindication that fans love to read, and we writers love to write. Looked at this way, these two players, who had hit rock bottom a year ago, have come back stronger than ever; sports has done its job again by turning adversity into motivation, by showing us people who remembered how much they loved what they did, once it was taken away from them. This is always a hopeful lesson, and one we can all learn again.

But the tales of Zahlavova Strycova and Cilic at Wimbledon are also sports stories of a more modern, and more ambiguous, variety. They both stem from positive drug tests, and the inevitable accusations of cheating that come with them. We know from hard experience that virtually all athletes who fail these tests will deny, as long as possible and as vociferously as possible, their guilt. From what I’ve read and seen of Cilic’s case, I believe that he didn’t try to do anything illegal. I’ve seen less on the Zahlavova Strycova judgement, but the ITF didn’t dispute her claim that she accidentally ingested the stimulant. 

How should we feel about the fates of Cilic and Zahlavova Strycova? Their opponents at Wimbledon so far might be tempted to think that their suspensions were the best things that could have happened to them, and that their time off is helping them win now. With athletes these days, it’s tough to believe that they’re still “innocent until proven guilty.” What we can agree on is that Cilic and Zahlavova Strycova served a suspension that the authorities determined was appropriate. They served time.

As far as vindication stories go, that obviously leaves something to be desired. But this is the price tennis pays for running an anti-doping program. Knowing that Cilic and Zahlavova Strycova were away from the game because they failed a test is better, to my mind, than believing that they were away because of an invented injury. If we think that they were innocent, we can see them as casualties in a necessary cause. This knowledge is what we have to live with now as sports fans. From there, we can choose to be inspired by their successes or not. Seeing Cilic and Zahlavova Strycova celebrate at Wimbledon so far, it's been tough to resist.

For complete Wimbledon coverage, including updated draws and reports from Steve Tignor, head to our tournament page.

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