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Monday, May 11, 2009
Pressure too much for Gasquet

By Bonnie D. Ford

The first word that came to mind after Richard Gasquet confirmed his positive test for cocaine -- a venal sin he denies committing -- was a French word, although it gets a pretty good workout in English.

How banal. Hard on the heels of the Manny Ramirez suspension and set alongside the doping cases involving major stars in baseball, cycling and track over the past few years, Gasquet's alleged offense seems relatively mundane, a throwback to the old days when athletes abused Scotch and cigarettes rather than steroids and EPO.

The World Anti-Doping Agency code treats cocaine and other "recreational" drugs with a certain ambivalence. Coke is not considered an effective performance enhancer because its boost is so short-term and the inevitable crash that follows so counterproductive. But it is a stimulant, and it is illegal. It was one ingredient of an incendiary potion called a "Belgian cocktail" that enjoyed some popularity in cycling a few years back. (Mix cocaine, heroin and amphetamines. Shake well. Fill syringe. Inject and enjoy.)

Richard Gasquet
Even prior to Richard Gasquet's positive cocaine test, his career had been slipping away.

So WADA splits the difference. If an athlete tests positive for cocaine in an out-of-competition control, it's not deemed a doping offense. A positive test during a competition, however, is treated like a regular violation, which means Gasquet could face up to a two-year suspension.

Gasquet was tested on site at the start of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami, then forfeited his first match because of a shoulder injury. Because of this timing, some reports have suggested that the test shouldn't be considered in-competition, but there's no room for interpretation on that point. Unless he decides to admit responsibility, Gasquet will be subject to the same arbitration process as all athletes covered under the WADA code, during which he can present his case and try to refute the evidence.

That might be challenging. Cocaine isn't welcome in any workplace, and millions of people worldwide are screened for it and other undesirable substances when they interview for a job. The test for cocaine has been around a long time and is considered eminently reliable.

It would be careless, at the very least, to risk having cocaine in your system during a major competition. And sadly, that thought is not terribly surprising where Gasquet is concerned.

The 22-year-old Gasquet, a former junior world champion propelled toward stardom since he was a child, has been a curiously indifferent custodian of his own talent. He seems uncomfortable in his own skin, near-phobic about having to live up to expectations and oblivious to the irritation his attitude arouses. People around him have searched, largely without success, for the fire that had to be lurking within.

One of the most remarkable unscripted off-court moments I've ever seen came during the Davis Cup quarterfinals last year, in the hallway outside the French team's locker room in Winston-Salem, N.C. Andy Roddick and James Blake had just swept the first day's singles as Gasquet watched from the bench. Captain Guy Forget, confident that his doubles team had a chance to beat the Bryan brothers the next day, was already thinking about the reverse singles on Sunday.

Gasquet was leaning against the wall, head down, looking sullen and vulnerable. Forget was in his face, speaking vehemently yet imploringly, clearly asking Gasquet to get his act together. Gasquet was just as clearly saying he couldn't.

The Bryans were indeed beaten the next day. In what proved to be the decisive singles match, Forget felt he had no choice but to send a depleted Paul-Henri Mathieu out to be slaughtered by Roddick. Gasquet spent some of his down time on the bench thumb-drumming on his mobile phone.

Gasquet's avoidance behavior denied Roddick a chance to beat the man who had broken his heart at Wimbledon in 2007, coming from two sets down in the quarterfinals. It was the kind of moment that has kept Gasquet's fans from extinguishing their personal pilot lights of hope -- brilliant, stylish and virtually error-free tennis, just when it seemed least likely.

The postmatch reactions of the two men were characteristic. Roddick, hollow-eyed and hollowed-out, could barely speak through his despair. Gasquet appeared more stunned than exultant, as if he'd witnessed an accident.

That upset lifted Gasquet to world No. 7, which was to be his high-water mark. The backslide to his current No. 21 has been long, gradual and largely unnoticed outside France, where he has been surpassed in the rankings and in national affection by compatriots Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon. Gasquet hasn't won an ATP title since a minor tournament in Mumbai, India, in September 2007; his Grand Slam results have been desultory, and he withdrew from the French Open last year, citing injury, after admitting he didn't relish the pressure.

In an interesting commercial turn of events, the all-American Roddick -- whose trademark ball cap and roomy shirts sport the iconic French alligator logo of Lacoste -- has now been embraced by Gasquet's longtime management company and patron, Lagardere. Say what you want about Roddick, and many have, but his work ethic, his drive and his desire to perform well on big stages never flag. Meanwhile, Gasquet's alleged transgression is sure to further erode his profile in his already skeptical native country.

Gasquet was formally suspended by the International Tennis Federation sometime in the past two weeks, when the results of his A sample positive were relayed to him. It's no way to start a vacation from competition, but perhaps Gasquet -- guilty as charged, or not -- could use the time to think about whether tennis is a chore or a calling.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for She can be reached at