MELBOURNE, Australia -- In 1998, he was an Australian Open hero. But in 1999, Petr Korda feels distinctly unwelcome at the Grand Slam event he won last year.
Tainted by a steroid scandal, he's being pressured by players to abandon his title defense. Meanwhile, the International Tennis Federation, whose drug test Korda failed at Wimbledon last July, wants to overrule its own Appeals Committee, which docked Korda's Wimbledon prize money and ranking points but imposed no suspension. The ITF would like to toss Korda out of tennis for a year.
Afraid that Korda's sentence will create a precedent where players caught with steroids in their systems escape punishment by professing ignorance, the ITF has set a different precedent by becoming the first sports federation to appeal a drug ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.
A final decision on Korda's fate is expected by April.
"We're not out to conduct a witch hunt on Petr Korda," an ITF spokesman, Alun James, said from Sydney, "but we believe the Appeals Committee misapplied the rule. We do not feel extenuating circumstances were proven by Korda, and we feel a suspension is warranted. A blanket 'I don't know how the drugs got there' is not sufficient."
After learning that some players were threatening to boycott the Australian Open if he attempts to defend his title this week, Korda appeared at a Melbourne news conference on Tuesday to reiterate his innocence and his intention to compete.
"I wanted to play in Australia because I haven't done anything; why should I hide?" Korda said. "I wish to state categorically that I am not a drugs cheat."
Korda said he would not duck an ATP Tour players meeting scheduled for yesterday in Melbourne, where several prominent players, including Jim Courier and Jonas Bjorkman, have demanded that the ITF explain why Korda is being allowed to compete.
The ATP Tour head, Mark Miles, said players calling for Korda's suspension "should not be hasty to draw conclusions."
"But I don't think this is personal about Petr: I think it shows a zero tolerance for cheating," he said. "The good news is that our players are demanding a clean sport and a doping program that has real teeth."
Miles said this case could lead to policy revisions defining the "extenuating circumstances" for an offender to avoid the mandatory one-year ban: "We never intended that a general denial, however sincere, by a player would be acceptable," he said.
Andre Agassi, who practiced in Melbourne this week with Korda and beat him, 7-6 (11-9), 6-2, was not supporting the suspension. But Agassi acknowledged the need for the ITF to explain its ruling.
"I feel the need to give the benefit of the doubt to Petr, but we have certain rules, and to find out the reasons behind the decisions that are made is something the players are entitled to," he said.
In two previous brushes with steroid infractions, tennis came to disparate conclusions. When Ignacio Truyol of Spain tested positive, he was suspended by the ATP Tour for a year in January 1997 despite his protest that the drug was prescribed for a back injury. When U.S. amateur Samantha Reeves tested positive for nandrolone metabolites in December 1997, the ITF upheld an Appeals Committee's ruling that she not be suspended.
The difference between the Reeves case and Korda's, according to James, is that Reeves admitted that she had taken Nor-Andro 19, sold over the counter as a food additive, and argued that she didn't know it contained a steroid. The ITF was aggravated by Korda's refusal to provide specifics on how the steroid might have entered his system.
"We're not after giving rewards to players who come up with the best excuses, but we believe this case sets a worrying precedent where players will feel they can hide behind a blanket 'I don't know,' " James said. "It does look a little strange for us to go against our own Appeals Committee, but we need to have a clarification on the ruling, the consequence of which might be a ban to Korda."
A year ago, Korda, of the Czech Republic, punctuated his first Grand Slam championship with a giddy reference to the unlikely durability of his pale and scrawny 29-year-old musculature.
The self-described weakling became the oldest man to win a Grand Slam since Andres Gomez, a 30-year-old Ecuadorean, captured the 1990 French Open. In what he hinted would be his final year on tour, Korda charged out to a 14-0 start in 1998 and several times came within a match or two of usurping Pete Sampras' No. 1 ranking. But at Wimbledon, mandatory drug testing after his quarterfinal finish revealed nandrolone metabolites, and he spent last fall tussling with the ITF.
Korda, who is not seeded for the Australian Open, finished 1998 with a record of 20-21, including first-round defeats at the French Open and the U.S. Open. He was censured by the ITF on Dec. 22, when it was revealed that he had tested positive for a Class One banned substance but would not be subjected to the mandatory one-year suspension. Then, on Jan. 6, the ITF's president, Brian Tobin, announced the decision to pursue Korda's suspension. The ITF insists it is not trying to victimize Korda, but he disagrees.
"I proved my innocence in accordance with the ITF's own rules," he said. "I would like to think everyone will now respect that finding."
Instead, it looks as if most everybody won't.
Pub Date: 1/17/99