As the ATP World Championships begin in London this week, I can't help but look back at the career of the winner here nearly twenty years ago, one who's been making news of a different kind in recent weeks.
Andre Agassi defeated Stefan Edberg at the Frankfurt tournament in 1990 when he was ranked fourth in the world. It was still pretty early in his career, when he'd only won a single Masters title (in Miami earlier that year), but he had already made the finals at both the French and U.S. Opens. He was still more than four years away from his #1 ranking and seven from his career low which was laced with depression, premature hair loss, an unhappy marriage and more than a few episodes of drug-use -- all detailed thoroughly, if you hadn't heard, in his new autobiography Open.
Now I haven't read the book, but I've read enough of the reviews and seen enough of the reaction. Martina Navratalova likened him to Roger Clemens, Marat Safin said he should return all his trophies. Andy Roddick, though, supported him as one of the great ambassadors of the sport and a few days ago, the ATP said it could not reopen the doping case against him.
All this comes during a year rife with accusations of or injunctions against drug use in the tennis world. Richard Gasquet was punished with what could have been a two-year ban after he tested positive for cocaine in March -- he was allowed to return to play in July after it was determined that a "contaminated kiss" was the actual culprit. Martina Hingis, whose own suspension ended in September, said she would not return to the sport. And now former top-twenty player Xavier Malisse and U.S. Open semifinalist Yanina Wickmayer face the prospect of sitting on the sidelines for twelve months for failing to report their whereabouts when the authorities were looking for them -- I'm still not sure I understand what they did wrong.
So what were the consequences?
Gasquet was ranked in the mid-twenties this past spring -- the once-formidable player has now fallen to #53. Hingis, who was in the middle of her first comeback in 2007, had climbed herself back to #18 in the world before permanently retiring. Wickmayer, after winning her second tour title and qualifying for Bali, had reached a career-high ranking -- one year off the circuit, she fears, could derail all the work she's done this year -- after all, not everyone can pull off a comeback of any significant magnitude.
For Agassi, of course, he presumably "got away with it". Twelve years after the fact, he's now remembered not for the slump of the late-nineties -- even if we didn't know what caused it at the time -- but for his resurrgence since. He won the career Grand Slam two years after hitting rock-bottom, regained his #1 ranking a day before his thirty-third birthday, married a fellow super star and started schools in Las Vegas to help the underprivileged. Drugs and baldness aside, turns out he's not that bad a guy.
Now of course I don't support the use of drugs, performance-enhancing or otherwise -- in or outside of sports. It does seem that officials are trying to retroactively make up for the oversight of Andre by being overly punitive now. Or maybe they're just trying to avoid the mistake they made back then. But what would the sport look like if Agassi hadn't played for those two years? What would he look like?
I don't know what the right answer is, don't know whether these players should be maligned or revered. But maybe you shouldn't be judged at your worst -- but by what you do after it.