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Poisoning, Cocaine, Gambling. In Tennis?

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By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2007

Few sports rival tennis for its decorum -- from the reverent crowds as players stride onto the court to the handshake that traditionally follows each match, however bitter the outcome.

But the "game of kings" recently has been beset by seamy story lines worthy of spy novelist John le Carr¿. Among them: allegations of match-fixing at a third-tier event in Sopot, Poland, and cocaine use in the midst of Wimbledon. Now comes talk of poisoning on the eve of Germany's September Davis Cup semifinal against Russia in Moscow.

Germany took a 2-1 lead in the series but lost, 3-2, after its best player, Tommy Haas, couldn't compete in his reverse singles match because of what was diagnosed as a severe stomach virus. The victory sent the Russians, who are the defending Davis Cup champions, into this year's final against the United States, which will be played Nov. 30-Dec. 2 in Portland, Ore.

The International Tennis Federation launched an immediate investigation into a claim that Haas had been poisoned, saying it regarded the assertion, made earlier this week by a German teammate based on a third party's claim, "very seriously." But on Thursday, the German Tennis Federation played down the rumor, noting that there was no medical evidence to substantiate it.

Meantime, U.S. Davis Cup captains, past and present, remain baffled.

"It's just beyond bizarre!" current captain Patrick McEnroe said. "That anything like that could actually happen in this sport is completely from left field. We went [to Russia] last year for the semifinals, and the only thing that made us sick to our stomach was the slow red-clay court. They actually treated us very well. Something like that would never even cross my mind. And unless something comes of it, it certainly doesn't change anything we do as far as preparing for the match."

Tom Gorman, who served as U.S. Davis Cup captain from 1986 to '93, was incredulous. So was Bethesda native Donald Dell, a U.S. Davis Cup team member from 1961 to '64 and captain of the 1968 and 1969 squads.

"It's preposterous to think anybody would poison somebody in Davis Cup," said Dell, who in 1961 became the first American to play competitive tennis in the Soviet Union. "But if it was ever going to happen, Russia is the likely prospect. I just can't conceive of anybody doing that."

Davis Cup competition has long posed unique challenges for American squads when they travel abroad, but primarily in the form of hostile crowds and unfamiliar food. Sabotage has never been a concern, according to past participants.

Dell recalls the extensive security that accompanied the Americans when they traveled to Romania for the 1972 Davis Cup final. The U.S. team was housed on one floor of a hotel and blanketed by multiple bodyguards. "It put a lot of pressure on the team, and they weren't really happy," Dell said.

In Gorman's era, a team doctor was dispatched to foreign cities that were hosting Davis Cup matches several days ahead of the players to evaluate sanitary conditions in the hotels and any restaurants on the itinerary. Omar Fareed and later his son, George Fareed, both physicians, would inspect kitchens, refrigeration systems and water supplies in such countries as Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Paraguay, Ecuador, Germany and Austria. The team had its meals prepared in a special room. Players were discouraged from eating salads and forbidden from buying food on city streets. And in eight years, Gorman didn't have a player fall sick.

For a stretch in the early 1990s, the U.S. Davis Cup squad traveled with its own chef. That practice has since been abandoned, McEnroe explained. The team typically travels to major cities these days and eats in the hotel or in well-known restaurants. But McEnroe, Jim Courier and Todd Martin all recall there being particular concern over finding familiar food during a 1994 trip to New Delhi, which is largely why they brought their own chef.

"We all remained quite healthy," Courier wrote in an e-mail. "Never have I been involved in any discussions regarding an intentional contamination scenario as is being suggested now."

Wrote Martin: "We never were concerned about anything untoward from the opposing team or support group. The most precautions we ever took was in a trip to India. It pains me to see this in the news, as I still believe this to be a game rooted in etiquette and sportsmanship. That still does exist -- case in point, [Roger] Federer -- but there are challenges out there that threaten those values."


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