Healing begins for Gasquet, Nadal

NEW YORK -- Six months ago, a first-round U.S. Open match between Rafael Nadal and Richard Gasquet might have seemed only mildly interesting.

Born 15 days apart, the powerful Spanish lefty and the Frenchman with the fluid, flawless one-handed backhand are prodigies who have been playing each other since they were preteens. But their adult paths have diverged sharply, symbolized by their head-to-head record: Nadal 6, Gasquet 0.

Nadal has emerged as the star of his generation, with six Grand Slam titles at age 23, while Gasquet has played brilliantly in streaks and cracked the top 10 but often has fallen short of his country's smothering expectations. Now the men, who will meet Wednesday, are both trying to get their feet back under them for very different reasons.

After Gasquet's positive test for a trace amount of cocaine on the eve of the Sony Ericsson Open in Key Biscayne, Fla., in March was made public, Nadal, who has railed against the indignity of antidoping controls on a few occasions, strongly backed his peer.

"[Nadal] is the one who supported me the most," Gasquet told reporters after arriving in New York, where he will play just his third match since returning from a 2½-month suspension. "If he ever needed me, I'd be there for him. I'll try to beat him -- this is sports -- but I will never forget that."

The story was peculiar from the jump.

International antidoping authorities consider cocaine and other recreational drugs such as marijuana to be banned substances only if an athlete tests positive in competition. Otherwise, it's considered a matter for the criminal justice system. Gasquet didn't strike a ball in Miami because he bowed out with a shoulder injury before his first match -- but he was target-tested on site immediately after withdrawing, which is permissible under tennis's rules, and categorized an in-competition test. (The idea is to prevent players from avoiding detection by suddenly withdrawing from events.)

Gasquet was facing a possible two-year suspension, a penalty many people in tennis felt would be excessive. But few wanted to expound on the case, and Gasquet himself went into seclusion for several weeks.

Nadal had no such inhibitions.

"I'm certain that he's not taking anything," Nadal said at the French Open. "He's a good friend of mine, and I discussed this with him last week. … You know what the world is like today. You know, when you go to a party, anything can happen these days. If you kiss a girl who's taken cocaine, anything can happen, and that's the truth. That's reality, and this can destroy your life or your career, rather, and [that's] unfair."

Nadal's answer foreshadowed Gasquet's eventual alibi, which involved a lengthy deep-kissing session with a French woman he met at a nightclub. That evening's events were laid out in excruciating detail in verbal and written testimony at Gasquet's hearing before an independent panel convened by the International Tennis Federation in London during Wimbledon.

The three-man panel was headed by British attorney Tim Kerr, a sports law specialist, and included veteran Canadian arbitrator and academician Richard H. McLaren and Dr. Mario Zorzoli of Switzerland, who as the International Cycling Union's health policy manager has reviewed numerous doping cases. They collectively accepted Gasquet's explanation, calling the circumstances "unusual," "exceptional" and "unique," and handed down the mildest of wrist slaps, a 2½-month suspension back-dated to May 1.

While Gasquet was making his case, Nadal unexpectedly found himself home in Mallorca. After the four-time French Open champion was beaten at Roland Garros for the first time in his career, he took the balance of June and July off to rest his aching knees, losing his hard-won No. 1 ranking and his chance to defend his Wimbledon title.

Nadal returned to action in Montreal and Cincinnati looking a tad rusty but declaring that he felt ready to get back to work. Gasquet's suspension ended in mid-July, but he waited a few weeks to start competing again and played two qualifying matches in New Haven this past weekend.

In the meantime, Gasquet, who has slipped from No. 23 at the start of the season to his current No. 46, tried to deal with the release of the tribunal's decision and its vaguely salacious narrative, along with a barrage of accompanying skepticism and criticism about his commitment to professional tennis.

None of Gasquet's sponsors, which include Lacoste and PlayStation, has abandoned him. He filmed a commercial campaign for Head & Shoulders shampoo before his positive test was announced; the company put the spots on hold until the decision, but they're now getting heavy airtime in France. He also played two exhibition soccer matches this summer with an all-star team of retired players.

A figurative guillotine is still poised above Gasquet's neck. "It's a complicated story, and it's not going to get easier," said his agent, Nicolas Lamperin of the Lagardere group. Both the World Anti-Doping Agency and the ITF -- which convenes the tribunal and selects panel members, but doesn't have to agree with their conclusion -- are appealing the shortened suspension to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland. (The ITF had sought a one-year suspension.) That body is expected to hear the appeal in the fall, and if Gasquet loses on appeal, he could face more enforced time off.

New York can be a tough venue for a player who's feeling fragile. But Lamperin said Gasquet wasn't as anxious about how he might be received by the fans or media as much as he was worried about his own form. "It's going to take some time to get his level back, and he knows that," Lamperin said. "For every month you're away, it can take two months to come back."

Nadal reiterated his feelings about Gasquet in a pre-U.S. Open news conference. "I support him a lot," Nadal said. "First thing, because I believe in him. Second thing, because I think he's a very nice guy. I know him since 13 years old or 12 years old.

"He told me he didn't take nothing. So I believe him 100 percent. If someone wants to kill you, somebody can kill you, you know?"

It may be a touchy topic, but ESPN analyst John McEnroe said he isn't surprised Nadal would align himself with Gasquet. "I think it's awesome," said McEnroe, who noted that Gasquet's transgression was not an attempt to enhance his athletic performance. "The way he's been hurt financially, rankings-wise and his reputation is already much more than what he did."

It's hard to imagine Wednesday's match between the two players as anything but one-sided, but an unlucky draw is low on Gasquet's list of concerns at the moment.

"You'd have to be a masochist to want to play Nadal in the first round," Gasquet said. "If I could have played someone else, I would have done that with great pleasure. But that's not the most important thing. The most important thing is to compete again.

"I'm not sure people understand the hell I've lived through. I'm so happy to be here. … It was three very difficult months, physically and mentally. You have to get going again bit by bit."

In the end, Gasquet's career won't rise or fall on the way Nadal or other players or even the international antidoping powers that be choose to judge him. What counts is what Gasquet did or didn't work on while he was idled, and what he makes of his opportunities when he comes back. That measuring process begins Wednesday.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.