The awarding of a wild card to former top-20 player Viktor Troicki of Serbia into this week's clay-court ATP Tour event in Gstaad, Switzerland has generated quite a bit of buzz.
One side thinks the Serb shouldn't be rewarded with freebies necessitated by a doping suspension, which is a little like saying a jailed prisoner who has served his sentence shouldn't be offered a job to help him get back on his feet. The other posits that the man has served his time, and there's no downside to giving him a helping hand to make a fresh start.
Troicki, now 28, was given a one-year suspension after refusing to take a blood test at the Monte Carlo tournament in April 2013. He said he was feeling under the weather, and also that he had a major fear of needles.
He did take a urine test; what happened after that was basically a matter of "he said, she said" with his story contradicting the version provided by the doping control official on site, Dr. Elena Gorodilova. Here's a summary of the original decision.
The big issue, in the end, is that regardless of what the doctor on site told him – or whether he interpreted it in a way that matched up with that he truly wanted to hear – it's ultimately an athlete's responsibility to ensure he or she follows all the rules and protocols of their sport. Troicki was hardly a rookie; he was a seasoned 27-year-old pro. That he (and his coach) continue to insist there was little fault on his part, that he was essentially railroaded by inaccurate information, does his reputation litle good going forward. His version of events also varied some between what he originally said, and what he told the Court of Arbitration for Sport, at which point his version became far more emphatic and dramatic.
The original 18-month sentence was reduced by six months after the CAS declared that it didn't appear Troicki was actually trying to avoid the doping test. Still, a year is forever in a tennis player's career, and Troicki's ranking is now down to No. 842.
It's not like a long injury break, where a player can return and play a certain number of tournaments under a protected ranking, frozen when he or she first went off the circuit. Troicki has to start from the bottom, and the Gstaad tournament has given him a first opportunity in that comeback.
As of a few days ago, according to CNN.com, Troicki's request for a Gstaad wild card was turned down, with the tournament director saying the priority was to award them to Swiss player. But that changed, and now Troicki will face one of the young players who emerged during his absence from the game, 20-year-old Dominic Thiem of Austria, in the first round.
"Honestly, it's been a tough year,. Mentally it was tough to handle everything but as time went on, I started preparing and practicing, and I was focused on my comeback and new start -- and looking forward to it," Troicki told CNN.com.
The story says that Troicki took advantage of his time off, studying sports management at Alfa University in Belgrade.
And he found out who his true friends are. One is coach Jack Reader, who according to the New York Times could have cashed in on a clause in his contract that called for a large cash payment if Troicki were ever to get a doping suspension.
Another is Novak Djokovic, who was well-meaning if a little biased in coming to the defence of his good friend late last year, and who has supported him throughout the suspension. Djokovic brought Troicki with him when he played down in South American last winter. And the pair also have practiced together numerous times in the interim.
The thing about Troicki is that he is a few stratospheres above most of the players who serve these types of suspensions. Most of them are players you've never heard of, at the lower levels of the game. Most often, given they're barely making ends meet as it is, they sort of drop off the face of the tennis earth.
And, you know, most of them don't produce moments like this:
Despite the fact that the suspension wasn't assessed on the basis of an actual positive doping test, Troicki was considered a "big fish" and there was a lot of attention on the case.
But he's a player who once reached No. 12 in the world, and a Davis Cup hero in his homeland after clinching the country's first ever Davis Cup tie.
He is going to need a lot of help just getting into tournaments – any tournaments – with his ranking in its current state.
Troicki and Thiem will meet on Gstaad's Centre Court Monday afternoon.
UPDATE: Troicki's former clothing sponsor, adidas, was not in evidence. He played Thiem wearing the kit of a new sponsor, Lotto, with whom he signed a few days ago. And he won, 7-6, 6-4. Impressive return.
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- Viktor Troicki