Was the Victor Troicki suspension fair?

Is it fair for the ITF to suspend a player for 18 months -- which is roughly a full 10th of an ATP career -- for a doping offense while simultaneously announcing that the player bore “no significant fault or negligence” in the actions that led to the suspension?

That seems to be the question left hanging in the wake of Thursday's explosive announcement that the ITF had suspended Viktor Troicki for that length of time (six months less than the maximum violation) for failing to provide a blood sample to the doping control officer (DCO) at the Monte Carlo tournament on April 15th.

As in almost all doping cases, the censured player claims innocence and has a confusing tale to tell. Troicki, a 27-year-old Serb and Davis Cup hero who once ranked as high as No. 12 (now No. 53), was asked to provide urine and blood samples after his loss to Jarkko Nieminen in the first round of Monte Carlo. He provided the urine, but did not give a blood sample, claiming that he was feeling unwell and concerned that drawing blood would leave him further weakened, perhaps even hospitalized.

And this is where it becomes a “he said/she said” story. Troicki claims a doctor told him it would be all right for him to submit the sample the following day, when he felt better. She even helped him compose a letter of explanation to the ITF, assuring him (Troicki claims) that doing so was an acceptable alternative to giving blood at the requested time. The tricky thing here is that some performance-enhancing drugs can be washed out of the system over the course of 24 hours.

But that was Troicki’s defense when he was called before anti-doping tribunal. That body chose to take the word of the DCO, who clearly told a different story. She claimed to have told Troicki that she couldn’t assure him that his excuse would pass muster and that she couldn’t vouch for what the ITF would do. Now, Troicki claims that she lied and that she’s just trying to cover up for her mistake -- that she’s trying to save her job.

As is so often the case in a U.S. court of law, you never really know beyond a shadow of a doubt whether a person is innocent or guilty. Sometimes, it depends on whom you choose to believe when one or the other person must be lying.

I find it hard to imagine that the DCO would lie to hide her mistake. It’s hard to imagine that her career would be destroyed, or that she would receive some draconian punishment for giving Troicki the wrong information; she’s presumably an educated professional. It’s hard to imagine she has no conscience, either; doctors are generally an ethical lot. Conversely, it’s easy to see how an uneducated tennis pro, caught doping, can see his career evaporating as quickly as morning dew in August and then do anything to prevent that from happening.

Furthermore, I find it difficult to swallow Troicki’s claim that feeling sick and a fear of ending up in the hospital (from drawing blood) led him to refuse to give blood. This guy is a 6-foot-4 specimen. What’s he doing playing the wimp card? Had Troicki won that match with Nieminen, I might be disposed to give his claim more credence. But he was feeling ill and he lost the match. Why not draw the blood and fulfill your obligation, get out of Dodge and write it off as just a bad week?

But I would have little trouble accepting Troicki’s suspension if the ITF flat-out rejected his defense. But the rationale for reducing the sentence by six months -- the clearly worded suggestion that he was not at fault or negligent -- suggests that he did absolutely nothing wrong beyond failing to follow the letter of the law. And I do have a problem accepting a suspension of that length on those grounds.

I imagine there are legal reasons for why the ITF is using exactly those words. (Besides, how could it prove at this point in time or in the future that Troicki was doping in the spring of 2013?) But the lack of clarity here bothers me. How could he not be at fault, or negligent, if he refused to give a blood sample -- and then appeared to try to lie his way out of that action (or at least chose to tell a fundamentally different story than the DCO's)? You have to believe one -- or the other.

Troicki said he’s spoken with his buddy, fellow Serb and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic. He, along with many other players (Troicki claims), is behind him. It will be interesting to see just how far behind Troicki they are, and whether they’re willing to take on his cause in a big way.