By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 4, 2006
MONT-DE-MARSAN, France, March 3 -- Christophe Fauviau, a self-described obsessive tennis dad, was a fixture at amateur matches throughout France in which his son and daughter competed. He often appeared at the start of sets with bottled water or cups of Coca-Cola for his children, as well as their rivals.
Sometimes those rivals became ill during the match. They complained they were seeing double; some passed out or collapsed. One fell asleep at the wheel of his car on the way home from a match he had forfeited to Fauviau's son because of sickness.
Now Fauviau has been charged with the death of that opponent and is on trial in a courtroom that is packed with tennis moms, dads and players -- and capturing headlines across a tennis-manic nation. Prosecutors contend he drugged 28 different people over a three-year period. He admits slipping the tranquilizer Temesta into the drinks, but denies responsibility, saying he assumed another personality when he did it.
"I was feeling more and more self-centered," he told a hushed courtroom Friday, after three days of testimony from acquaintances and people who said he had drugged them. "I wanted to be recognized as a good coach. That was my only aim. I was betraying my own children to give this to other players."
The case against Fauviau, a retired helicopter pilot instructor for the French military, offers a look into the often ruthlessly high-pressure life of the amateur tennis circuit. "I was shocked," Nadine Incaby, the mother of one of the youths Fauviau is accused of drugging, said in an interview during a court recess. "I couldn't imagine that kind of extreme behavior. My son had been playing his son since they were 6 years old."
But some of the young players who listened to the testimony scoffed at the notion that Fauviau's behavior was startling. "Parents put pressure on their kids," said Benoit Tauziede, 20, another of the alleged victims, who is now a coach. "A lot of things happen in tennis. They're just all not so obvious."
For three years, from 2000 until 2003, Christophe Fauviau's actions were not obvious to his victims.
His daughter, Valentine, now 15, was a rapidly rising star on the French national tennis scene. His son Maxime, 18, was a lesser competitor in regional tournaments, playing as many as 70 matches a year, according to his father.
Tauziede said he played a match against Maxime Fauviau in June of 2003, when Tauziede was 17. At one point during the game, he noticed his knapsack was missing. When it later reappeared, his water bottle had spilled onto a T-shirt in the knapsack, he said.
During the match, he suddenly began feeling dizzy. "I was seeing two balls coming at me," he recalled. He said Maxime's father asked him if his head was okay. After the game, Tauziede said, he collapsed in the shower. His parents took him to a hospital where he remained for two days. Doctors were unable to diagnose his illness, he said.
The players Fauviau is accused of drugging range in age from 11 to 42.
Fauviau, a slightly built man with a receding hairline and a pinched-looking face, testified in court, "When my children were playing, I was suffering. It was as if I were playing myself. I felt I was my child. I felt something crying inside me."
He said he arrived at his plan "little by little -- it was not sudden."
He was also taking Temesta at the time because he was having difficulty sleeping. "When I put the tablets in, I had to do it very quickly. It was like I was in a fog," he said Friday, referring to giving the drugs to his children's opponents. "Then I had to leave. It was hard to watch a match after giving them tablets."
Valentine Fauviau, who is scheduled to testify next week, said in an interview published Friday in Le Parisien newspaper that she did not know her father was drugging her rivals. "People often ask me now if I was aware of the difficulties some of my opponents must have had," she said. "But how could I imagine my father was responsible? In tennis, people often have sunstroke or other difficulties."
Fauviau's undoing began in 2003. On July 3 that year, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher, Alexandre Lagardere, played Maxime Fauviau in what was considered a friendly local match. The prize was a ham. Lagardere fell ill while they were playing and dropped out. He drove to a friend's house and went to sleep on a couch, abandoning plans for a night out.
Two hours later he awoke and tried to drive home. He crashed his car when he apparently fell asleep at the wheel and died of his injuries. An autopsy found traces of Temesta in his system. Fauviau became a suspect when witnesses reported seeing him fiddling with Lagardere's water bottle just before the match.
When details of Lagardere's death became public, tennis players from across France went to police with reports of illnesses following matches with the Fauviau children. Christophe Fauviau was arrested in 2003 and remains in jail. If convicted of causing Lagardere's death, he could face up to 20 years in prison.
From his seat next to a policeman and behind his attorneys in the courtroom this week, Fauviau addressed Lagardere's tearful father and stepmother. "I cannot imagine being responsible for the death of your son," he said. "I have three children myself and I can understand your pain. I never wanted something like that to happen."
"I would hope that one day you would forgive me if I am found responsible for the death of your son."