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Humbled Wayne Odesnik

Elina Frumerman

Photo:  By Rob Griffith, AP

Photo: By Rob Griffith, AP

A year ago this month, Wayne Odesnik was battling for a second consecutive final berth at the ATP Tour event in Houston.

Today he is toiling in tennis' minor leagues in an effort to resuscitate a career derailed by a doping violation.

In his first extensive comments since serving a one-year suspension for possessing human growth hormone, Odesnik shed a few more shards of light on what happened after customs officers discovered the substance in his baggage when he arrived in Australia for a tournament Jan. 2, 2010.

Speaking for nearly an hour by phone last week, Odesnik discussed the difficult time away from tennis and his burning desire to reclaim his place in the sport.

"Looking back, there are many things that could have happened differently," said American Odesnik, who reached a career-best 77th in 2009. "I'm young, and obviously you learn from your mistakes."

"My goal is to get back into ATP tournaments and play the Grand Slams," added Odesnik, 25, who competed in 10 consecutive majors prior to his year-long ban. "I really feel if I'm able to stay injury free, my level is already there."

For the last 12 months, Odesnik has lived with the label drug cheat and whistle-blower. Now back cobbling together the pieces of his career, he is looking to clear the air and tell his side of the story.

Alternating between contrite and defiant, Odesnik said that he wanted to "at least get at some of the information out there" after taking a "big hit in the media" last year.

The journeyman pro reiterated his claim that he has never taken performance-enhancing drugs. He explained some of the why — but little of the how — he was transporting HGH across international borders. 

Odesnik left many questions unanswered, including the most burning: What kind of "cooperation" is he providing to authorities in exchange for his reduced suspension?

He and his lawyer, Christopher Lyons, who participated in last Thursday's call, would not discuss the arrangement struck with the International Tennis Federation that halved Odesnik's two-year suspension and allowed him to resume playing this year. The ITF oversees doping policy and enforcement in tennis.

"One of the things we have to be very careful about is saying anything that would violate the confidentiality we have with the ITF," Lyons said.

Trouble at customs 

According to court documents and the magistrate's ruling in the case, South African-born Odesnik admitted bringing eight vials of HGH and other medical paraphernalia in his luggage, which initially failed to show up when he arrived in Brisbane.

Odesnik first told customs officers that he had a doctor's prescription for HGH to aid a "career-threatening injury," but later said in court proceedings that he had ordered it from the Internet. He failed to give the name of a consulting doctor or details of the injury.

He told officers he planned to use the HGH only after he had approval, but there is nothing in the record indicating he had undertaken steps to do so.

Odesnik said in the interview he was unaware that he was committing a doping violation when he carried the HGH into Australia.

"I did not know that the sole possession of any banned substance at that time was a violation," he said. "I know if you take something and test positive it's a violation, but seeing as I've never taken it, I never thought that with a doctor's consultation or whatever that it would be a doping violation."

Odesnik, a southpaw, explained that he had tried for months to shake a nagging left shoulder and back injury, to no avail. He took off no significant time in that period and played a full schedule of tournaments in 2009, going 35-43. He said he consulted with a couple of doctors that recommended HGH as a "necessary step for me to take," he said.

He did not provide the names of those doctors.

He restated, as he did in court documents, that he intended to get clearance for the HGH before using it. 

Odesnik said proof of his ignorance and integrity was his admission of guilt to customs officers.

"The question I always get asked by everyone is, 'Why did you say (the HGH) was yours being that my bags were lost?' " he said. "I think that right there shows my honesty. If I was aware I was breaking a rule by doing all these things of course I would have said it wasn't mine. At that time, I didn't know. Maybe it was me being naïve. I don't know. But at that stage I didn't think I was doing anything wrong. That's why I said 'Yes, those are my bags, that is mine.' That's the only reason why I had admitted to it."

He added: "If I knew it, I wouldn't have done it. It was an honest mistake, and I've paid the price for it."

As an anabolic agent, HGH has long been a staple of athletes looking to improve performance, though its benefits are controversial and not well understood. The NCAA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) ban it. Tennis adheres to the WADA code.

HGH has been prohibited for import to Australia since 1999.

Odesnik and his lawyer declined to explain how or why Odesnik came into possession of HGH.

"How he got it, where he got it, where he paid for it, whether it was a doctor's prescription or over the Internet — all that stuff — we are not going to be able to discuss that," Lyons said.

According to doping expert Gary Wadler there are very few federally approved uses for HGH, none of which pertain to injury prevention or recovery.

"That is not a legitimate use as far as I know," said Wadler, an associate professor at the Hofstra University School of Medicine and a former chairman of the WADA Prohibited List and Methods Committee.

Stuart Miller, head of the ITF's drug-testing program, said in an email that he had never heard of any athlete in professional sports receiving a so-called "therapeutic use exemption" for HGH. 

Any such clearance was "very unlikely," he wrote.

Working on a comeback 

Odesnik is taking it one step at a time and is determined to do whatever it takes to become relevant in tennis again.

After the ruling in Australia went public in March 2010, the ITF initiated its own anti-doping investigation. Odesnik continued to play the following week in Houston, reaching the semifinals before losing to fellow American Sam Querrey in three sets.

Under a hail of criticism, Odesnik subsequently took a voluntary suspension and played no more events.

In May, the ITF slapped him with a two-year suspension, retroactive to January 2010. On Dec. 22, the ITF announced that his suspension had been reduced to one year because he was cooperating with the anti-doping authorities in uncovering other offenses.

According to Odesnik, the entire experience was a "wakeup call."

"When everything was up in the air — that was a very scary time for me," he says.

After first distancing himself from anything to do with tennis — a two-month period during which he says he was "depressed" — Odesnik began training in earnest again in August.

He says he never worked harder than in the months leading up to his reinstatement, spending six to seven hours a day on the court with his coach, former top-10 player Guillermo Canas of Argentina, and on the track and in the gym.

"It really brought the love of tennis back to me when I realized it could go away so fast," he said. 

Since his return, the Westin, Fla., resident has won two of the five events he's entered, including Futures tournaments in Florida and Texas. The wins have pushed his ranking to No. 514. This week, Odesnik is playing in a Challenger event in Tallahassee.

Odesnik, a grinder who reached the third round at Roland Garros in 2008, says he is hungrier than ever. His goal was to climb back up to ATP-level tournaments and crack the top 100 by year's end.

He says the adversity has been a blessing in disguise.

"I think it will help my career in the long run," he said. "I feel like I'm in much better shape than I was. Mentally, I'm stronger."

There likely is more hardship ahead.

Although Odesnik has never tested positive for any banned substance and has denied ever using HGH, his doping violation — and subsequent decision to play the event in Houston — drew harsh words from fellow American players and other observers in the sport.

"That's just plain cheating, and they should throw him out of tennis," Andy Roddick said last year.

Odesnik said he is steeling himself for any negativity and refused to dwell on the past.

"I can't look back and say, what if this, what if that," he said. "A lot of people that had setbacks have become more successful in life."

Odesnik said he heard from a couple of his peers during his suspension and practiced with at least two Americans, Jesse Levine and Michael Russell.

He said of his American peers, "I wasn't really that friendly with any of them prior to this incident," and dismissed the possibility of a chilly reception from players as he works his way back up to ATP-level events.

In contrast, Odesnik said peers and fans had been "warming and welcoming" since he started playing again in lower-tier Futures and Challenger events this year.

At the same time, Odesnik said he was humbled by the "career-changing" experience.

"When you're out of work for six months or a year and you're not making money you realize what the real world is like," he said. "It hits you hard."

Former top-10 player Richard Gasquet, who successfully appealed his two-year ban for testing positive for cocaine after serving only three months in 2009, said it would not be an easy road back.

"Every story is different," the Frenchman noted last month during the BNP Paribas Open. "Mine was really difficult. I don't know his story at all. But for sure it's tough mentally for him to come back."