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Posted: Wednesday May 13, 2009 1:00PM; Updated: Wednesday May 13, 2009 1:00PM
Jon Wertheim Jon Wertheim >

A near death penalty for Gasquet, Serena's attitude and more mail

Story Highlights

Tennis's drug testing is so draconian and intrusive that it undermines the sport

I'd rather have an impolitic dominator like Serena than a pleasant underachiever

Even without a French Open title, Pete Sampras is up for GOAT consideration

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A two-year cocaine suspension puts Richard Gasquet's career in limbo.
Michal Cizek/Getty Images
Jon Wertheim's Mailbag
Jon Wertheim will answer questions from users in his mailbag every Wednesday.

Can you please explain the ITF's drug policy to me? I understand why it tests for performance-enhancing substances -- the sport's governing body has a responsibility to the fans and players to maintain a level playing field. But why are they even testing for other drugs, let alone banning players for two years for using cocaine? Yes, recreational drug use is illegal, not to mention pretty stupid and self-destructive for an athlete, but did Richard Gasquet's brush with nose candy give him an unfair advantage at Delray Beach? Did Martina Hingis' (disputed, fleeting) snort have any ill effect on her colleagues or the millions of tennis fans enjoying her lingering presence on the tour?
-- Bobby, New York

• We look at other sports and mock their anti-doping protocol -- the loopholes, the tip-offs and the toothless deterrents. Just last week, after all baseball has been through, Manny Ramirez tests positive for a banned substance and receives... a 50-game suspension. Sounds severe, given the laughably light penalties from the previous era, but it's still barely a quarter of the season. Yet tennis represents the other end of the spectrum: an anti-doping protocol that is so draconian and intrusive and inflexible that it, too, undermines the sport. Two days after Ramirez's embarrassment, Gasquet tests positive for cocaine. Leaving aside his guilt or innocence -- he claims the latter -- it's a first offense and it's for a recreational drug, not one considered to enhance performance or distort competition. Gasquet's punishment? Two years, which in tennis terms is damn near close to a death penalty.

Few of us, of course, have an inside track on whether Gasquet did or didn't dabble in Bolivian marching powder. Like many, I find it wildly out of character. But, really, who knows? What we do know is this: In the absence of a real union, tennis players are getting hammered on the issue of anti-doping. The "penal code" is way out of whack with reality or fairness. The appeals process is convoluted and prohibitively expensive. The thresholds are brutally harsh. The banned substance list is exhaustive -- until recently, it included anti-hair-loss drugs. (And while no one condones cocaine, haven't the last three U.S. presidents admitted to illicit drug use?)

In the bizarre case of Hingis, we witnessed a player whose sample contained such a trace amount of the cocaine metabolite, she would have passed the drug testing administered by the U.S. military. And it appears this is a repeat. Gasquet already claims that a hair test -- which many analysts consider the most reliable test for cocaine -- will exonerate him. Let the lawsuits begin. (At least, unlike so many players, Gasquet, can presumably afford it.)

Some of the blame here lies with the players. For all their vocal indignation about blue clay courts and mandatory video shoots and a dozen other petty annoyances, where's the outrage over a drug policy that triggers a two-year penalty for recreational drugs? And I blame the tours, too. They essentially signed off on the WADA code and delegated testing to the ITF for economic reasons -- Wait, you'll pick up the tab? Sweet! -- without giving full consideration to the effects.

As this plays out, I worry about Gasquet. As flashy and artistic as his game could be, he always struck me as painfully shy and emotionally immature, someone particularly ill-suited for living in the public eye. Even when he was embedded in the top 10, he never projected self-belief or comfort in his own skin. Tellingly (and poignantly), the goal of his charitable foundation is "to help adolescents who struggle to find their place in society and who suffer from a lack of confidence." Here's hoping he has the strength to fight this. And here's hoping we see him back much sooner than two years from now.

Regarding your answer last week to the e-mailer's question about Serena Williams, I really don't understand why she gets a pass from the media when it comes to her lack of sportsmanship. Other players, male and female, get called out over this kind of stuff, but when it comes to Serena, the media collectively shrug and say she's right. While that may be the case, there is a No. 1-ranked player in the world, and it is not her. Given her sense of entitlement, I'm glad that it is so.
-- Alex, Mission Viejo, Calif.

• Compare, for instance, her remarks with Rafael Nadal's when he was second behind Roger Federer. In the 2008 French Open final, Nadal tuned Federer, including the bagel in the third set. After the match I asked Nadal whether, deep down, he felt like he was No. 1. "No, no, no. I feel like No. 2 now," he said, oblivious, of course, to the double entendre. "I am No. 2 and closer to No. 3 than the No. 1."

But here's my point: So many of you were outraged over her "lack of class" and "gracelessness," and that's fine. But where's the outrage over players who are afraid of the moment, who buckle under pressure, who fail upward, who can't summon their best when it matters most, the real test of an athlete? Ana Ivanovic wins the French and has scarcely been heard from since. An almost unwatchably nervous Dinara Safina wins three games in the last Grand Slam final. Time and again Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova fail to deliver in the big matches. Jelena Jankovic has regressed in 2008. OK, the two aren't mutually exclusive, but I'd rather have an impolitic athlete with Serena's track record than a pleasant one who can't win.

Here's a stat for you: Serena's record in the last four Grand Slams is 22-2. Her regular tour record in the past 12 months? It's 20-10 after her Madrid loss, with no titles. Have you ever seen a disparity like this?
-- Brian, Vancouver, B.C.

• Wow. And, no, can't say I've ever seen that kind of disparity. I guess you go one of two ways here: Serena brings the good at the majors, or she really goes at something other than full speed the rest of the year. Let me throw this out: Physical durability is not a strong suit here. Perhaps more than any player, she benefits from the extra day between matches that the Slams provide.

Speaking of players somehow not being ranked No. 1, how in the world was Guillermo Vilas not top-ranked in 1977? He hardly lost a match after June (excepting Wimbledon).
-- Jim Bartle, Huaraz, Peru

• Unbelievable.

If you need a city to bash you can pick (your feet in) Poughkeepsie. We're used to it!
-- Brian Thomas, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

• Then it's no fun. It's like The Office picking on Scranton, the civic equivalent of some low-hanging fruit.

Please answer this question as it has bugged me for YEARS! Pete Sampras is widely regarded as GOAT because of the 14 major titles. Please tell me how someone can be considered GOAT when there was a major (and a surface) he couldn't win on. Not even a French Open final on Sampras' résumé and it wasn't like he had a clay god like Nadal keeping him from the crown in Paris. I am not writing this to say Federer should be GOAT over Sampras but to simply say I appreciate someone like an Andre Agassi or Nadal who either win on all surfaces or at least make multiple major finals on all surfaces. It just seems to be that a GOAT player should be able to win a major on grass, hard AND clay, regardless of how many titles they rack up elsewhere.
Matt Waters, St. Petersburg, Fla.

• I think the logic goes like this: While the lack of a French Open title (or, unlike Federer, proficiency on clay) is obviously the glaring omission on Sampras' résumé, it doesn't disqualify him from GOAT consideration. It would be nice to have won the "career Slam," but it's not a prerequisite.

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