FORT WORTH, Texas -- A high-ranking ATP executive nodded toward me, indicating he had something to tell me in private. We walked to where we couldn't be heard and he said words to the effect that we had a major anti-doping violation on our hands.
This wasn't a player ranked No. 200 that only his family knew was pursuing a professional tennis career, but "the big fish" that critics of the men's professional tennis tour suspected we were unwilling to hook because of how it might taint the game.
The player was Andre Agassi.
I was vice president of communications for the ATP then and part of the chain of how anti-doping violations and other issues were handled. I was usually informed by the tour's chief executive officer, Mark Miles, and my task was to prepare a Q&A, anticipating everything the media might ask if a suspension was announced and to include the basic facts about the ATP's anti-doping policy.
Once the Q&A was reviewed and approved by Miles, it was distributed to tour executives in our offices in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Monte Carlo, London and Sydney. This was the script they would use when questioned by the media.
So, it was unusual that I learned about Agassi's positive test from the executive, who will remain nameless, but I figured I would be hearing from the CEO in short order anyway. This news could have far-reaching repercussions, as it is having now after Agassi revealed drug use in his soon-to-be-published autobiography, "Open."
But I never heard a word from Miles, from the day I was told until I left the ATP for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in August of 1998. I didn't ask, either, because I didn't want the executive who confided in me to be reprimanded--or worse. But it was troubling knowing we had a positive test from a player who was one of the best-known athletes in the world, and yet, the crisis management plan wasn't being put into motion.
There could be mitigating circumstances, I reasoned. The ATP's anti-doping policy at the time stipulated that a player was not in violation of the program until he had exhausted all appeals heard by an independent panel--positive test notwithstanding. That was a provision that many players didn't know and many in the media didn't accept.
Nowadays, the International Tennis Federation oversees drug testing in tennis, in accordance with the rules and regulations of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Because of this potential bombshell, I thought that perhaps the tour decided to tighten the loop and minimize further any chance of a disclosure -- even accidentally -- of Agassi's positive test.
I admit to even wondering whether it was a matter of trust, that after having been a reporter for 24 years before joining the tour, there was some concern that I would leak this headline-making news to the media, or someday use it for my own purposes.
I never received an answer. The Agassi case was as much a mystery when I left the tour as when I first heard from that unsuspecting executive who broke protocol. For the first time I wondered whether my former colleagues in the media were right when they said the ATP had no stomach for catching the big fish.
So, count me as not the least bit surprised by Agassi's revelation that he was a crystal meth user and lied to the ATP about the positive test, saying he didn't know his "assistant" had spiked his soda. And neither am I shocked that the independent panel apparently accepted his story. Maybe it was a plausible explanation, but would the panel be so quick to exonerate a lesser player?
I am, however, stumped as to why Agassi, who left the game on good terms, had a worldwide following, does great work with young people through his foundation in Las Vegas and is husband of tennis legend Steffi Graf and a father of two, would want to tarnish his legacy.
Talk about a self-inflicted wound. Agassi certainly doesn't need the money, in fact, Graf probably earned as much, if not more than he did in worldwide endorsements. And why would he risk his reputation now?
Remember, Agassi's mantra? "Image is everything."
Count Boris Becker among those also befuddled by the revelations, which Becker said was "probably the most shocking thing I've heard in tennis" in an article in Friday's Telegraph of London.
Ironically, tour executives had taken Becker to task a few years earlier when he suggested--without any evidence--in an interview that there was drug use among some tennis players that was being ignored or going undetected.
In Friday's article, Becker said, "I don't think that recreational drug use is common on the tennis circuit now. The testing has got tougher in recent years. I don't think that the top players would be so stupid."
Crystal meth is considered a recreational drug, not performance-enhancing like steroids or amphetamines, which would give an athlete an unfair advantage. So Agassi probably would have served only a three-month suspension if he were found in violation of the anti-doping policy. Still, he writes in his book that the drug brought on a "tidal wave of euphoria," and made him feel super human.
How is that not potentially performance-enhancing?
In the Telegraph article, Becker says he doesn't see what Agassi has to gain by this disclosure. Well, perhaps the revelations are cathartic. The teenage "rebel" with the long hair and highlights, who morphed into an elder statesman with the shaved head, also writes in his book about his poor relationship with his father and how he hated tennis. There was also the failed marriage to Brooke Shields.
Having written about Agassi from the time he came on the scene through my communications duties in 6 1/2 years with the ATP, my impression was that he was a Las Vegas showman constantly changing his persona. First, the brash kid, then a born-again Christian, a player who applauded his opponent's shots and, at the end, the wily, experienced star who theatrically bowed to the crowd and was winning Grand Slam titles after many of his contemporaries had retired.
It's possible that Andre Agassi has never been who he appeared to be -- that he has never been himself. And, now, no matter the consequences, perhaps the rebel has finally found a cause.