ITF silent on cocaine allegations


TENNIS is facing its first drugs scandal with the threat of a High Court action against the sport's governing body following a newspaper allegation that Mats Wilander and Karel Novacek tested positive for cocaine at the French Open last June.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) would neither confirm nor deny a News of the World story yesterday that Wilander, a former world number one, and Novacek had denied using drugs, had consulted lawyers, and would challenge the validity of the tests.

Cocaine is a Class Two prohibited substance on the tennis tour. Positive test results subject a player to a three month suspension for a first offence, a one year ban for a second offence, and permanent suspension for a third.

Wilander and Novacek, who withdrew from the Australian Open saying they were injured, were in London last week, reportedly for meetings with Dr David Martin, the head of the sport's co ordinated anti doping programme, Gavin Applebee, of the ATP Tour, and Debbie Jevons, of the ITF.

The News of the World carried the following statement from American lawyers acting for the players: "On behalf of our clients, we categorically deny the allegation. We have lie detector evidence proving our clients are telling the truth in denying the allegation.

"We came to London with our clients and our expert witnesses to prove our clients' innocence, as the ITF rules require. The ITF then cancelled a hearing at 11.55 pm the night before the hearing was to begin.

"As a result, we are issuing proceedings against the ITF in the High Court in London next week. A more complete statement will be issued by our clients in due course."

A puzzling aspect of the affair is how it has remained concealed for so long, the inference being that legal wrangles have been taking place in the background.

Wilander (32), followed Bjorn Borg in the dynasty of Swedish champions and is one of the most respected players in the sport. He has made $7.9 million in official prize money alone. Having gradually drifted out of the game after winning three of the four Grand Slam titles in 1988, he revived his interest and in the past two years has elevated his ranking from 326th to 45th.

Novacek (30), is from Czechoslovakia but lives in Monte Carlo, in common with many of the Europeans on the professional tour. He has won $3.7 million. Ranked as high as eighth in the world in 1991, he slumped to 122nd last year.

"I can't confirm that there have been any positive tests," said the ITF president, Brian Tobin. "We won't comment on any individual tests or results that take place throughout the year."

About 1,000 random samples were taken last year, Tobin said, adding: "Should any particular athlete ever be found in violation of the rules after full and due process, then of course he or she will be subject to the penalties proscribed.

"I hope that you will agree that the occurrences that have happened in other sports, where I believe in some cases, perhaps, athletes were not treated as fairly as they should have been, should be avoided in tennis.

"There are all sorts of things that can affect tests - medical treatment, that sort of thing. All that has to be considered properly before the final decision is made.

"It's never happened before. It's funny, you sometimes get criticism for never having found a player positive, and they say, `What's wrong with the system?' If some time you do find a player positive, the say, `Is that bad for the sport?' If it happened, I would have thought it proves the system is sufficient. But that is only hypothetical."

Although Jennifer Capriati, the disaffected American prodigy, attended a drugs rehabilitation centre in 1994 after being arrested four being in possession of marijuana, this is the first time allegations have been made about players testing positive during a tournament.

Boris Becker, who won the Australian Open singles title yesterday, was reprimanded by the ATP Tour two years ago after claiming that drug abuse was rampant in men's tennis. And last year the former Wimbledon champion was fined $20,000 for making an insinuation after Thomas Muster's comeback from dehydration at the Monte Carlo Open.

Recreational use of cocaine is not unknown among tennis players. Bjorn Borg admitted in 1992 that he had sampled the substance in the mid 1980s, Vitas Gerulaitis once had problems with cocaine, and in 1979 Yannick Noah alleged widespread recreational drug use on the tour.