Doping stories stealing first major's steam

MELBOURNE, Australia -- While fans wonder whether Andre
Agassi will win a ninth major title or how Venus Williams will play
after her long absence, another intriguing story is casting a
shadow over the start of the Australian Open.

Tennis was jolted two weeks ago when 1997 U.S. Open finalist
Greg Rusedski announced he tested positive for the banned steroid
nandrolone in July -- and claimed that it must have come from a
supplement provided by ATP trainers.

Everyone from John McEnroe to Lindsay Davenport has weighed in
since. And they might well be asked for more opinions on the
subject during the year's first Grand Slam tournament, where play
was set to start Monday (Sunday night ET).

"I know that the players I play with are clean," said Andy
Roddick, seeded No. 1 at a major for the first time. "And, you
know, it's disappointing to see it taking away from all the good
stories in the game."

Davenport, the fifth-seeded woman, figures steroids would have
limited benefits in this sport.

"I'm sure some players unfortunately do go down that path, but
ultimately, tennis is still a game of skill," she said. "So I
think although it probably would help in some aspect, ultimately,
it comes down to how well you can make contact with the tennis
ball, and no drug is going to help you get better at that."

The ATP, which runs the men's tour and is part of the tennis
anti-doping program along with the International Tennis Federation
and the WTA, conducted at least 1,100 random tests at tournaments
in 2003 and about 60 out-of-competition tests.

Agassi, who won last year's Australian Open, said he played in
13 tournaments in 2003 and took a total of 19 drug tests: 11 urine
samples and eight blood samples, three out-of-competition tests.
Roddick said he was tested at least 17 times.

"One of the things we can say is our sport is leading -- if not
the top sport -- in drug testing in both intensity as far as what
they test for and how often they test," Agassi said. "I have full
confidence I am playing someone who is clean."

Rusedski is allowed to compete pending a Feb. 9 hearing on his
case and plays 26th-seeded Albert Costa in the first round at
Melbourne Park. Rusedski received generous applause when he walked
on court at a warmup tournament in Sydney.

"I know I'm innocent -- I'm not going to hide," he said. Other
players were exonerated after their positive samples showed a
similar "fingerprint," meaning the substances could come a common
source, he said.

"I'm not the only person in this situation. The facts speak for
themselves," Rusedski said.

He's had public support from Bohdan Ulihrach, one of seven
players to initially test positive for nandrolone and later be
cleared after the possibility was raised that ATP trainers might
have unwittingly handed out contaminated supplements.

"I believe Greg 100 percent," Ulihrach told Britain's The
Guardian newspaper. "I'm sure it's some mistake."

McEnroe, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion, said he was
given a strong -- but at the time legal -- steroid for six years
without knowing it, and he suspected players were taking drugs when
he was playing.

Drug testing in tennis started in the late 1980s by the Men's
International Professional Tennis Council, initially for
recreational drugs. Other substances that were considered
performance enhancing have been added to the banned list.

Rusedski says his is one of 47 cases where traces of nandrolone
might be attributed to supplements provided by ATP trainers.

The ATP rejects that figure, saying instead that in 36 cases
players showed elevated levels of nandrolone that were below the
threshold for a positive test. The men's tour said seven other
minimal positives were erased after it couldn't prove supplements
dispensed by its trainers didn't contain traces of banned

The tour became aware of the possibility that it was mistakenly
giving out contaminated products last May, when an unidentified
player tested positive for nandrolone and said he was using only
ATP-provided electrolyte tablets that help avoid dehydration.

Ulihrach's ban and fine were discarded after that.

Nandrolone has produced a spate of positive tests in several
sports in recent years. In many cases, athletes said they took the
banned substance unknowingly in nutritional supplements.

Petr Korda, the 1998 Australian Open champion, tested positive
for nandrolone at Wimbledon later that season and was banned for
one year.

News of Rusedski's positive test came two days after Argentina's
Mariano Puerta was suspended for nine months by the ATP for testing
positive last year for clenbuterol, whose effects resemble those of
anabolic steroids by promoting muscle growth.