The man by whom the scandal happens (2/7)

« I was a victim of the bad reputation of the Argentines [1]. If the files of Guillermo Coria and Juan Ignacio Chela had not existed, the suspension would have been less [2]". After a positive control with clenbuterol [3], an anabolic and a respiratory beta-stimulant, Mariano Puerta completes in 2003 an already relatively large list of Argentinian players who were caught by the patrol: Juan-Ignacio Chela in 2001 for using methyl testosterone, Guillermo Coria for taking nandrolone and Martin Rodriguez for an excess of caffeine in 2002. It should be said that in the locker rooms, Argentines make chatter. In 2002, Sergi Bruguera, double winner at Roland Garros, guarantor of an old-fashioned game based on patient play and full strikes, was asked shortly after his retirement from sport to comment on Guillermo Canas' astonishing physical strength. "Some players surprised me with their physical power and speed (...). When I was still active, I talked about these things with the tour leaders. I think that there should be more regular checks on all the players and above all that the results be made public. [4]," he replied to the journalists present at the time. Overwhelmed by these new game profiles, the Spaniard, a reference of Spanish tennis in the 90s, had retired after a defeat against the same Guillermo Canas in Barcelona. As for the latter, he will be tested positive for a diuretic in 2005.

Episode 1 - Investigation of Mariano Puerta, itinerary of a tumultuous career: Through the storm

A maverick on the ATP circuit in his time, Christophe Rochus, former 38th player in the world, regularly raised the problem of doping in his speeches, until he received reminders from the ATP. In particular, he had expressed doubts about the training methods in force in Argentina. He was also very critical of the verdict of the first suspension of Mariano Puerta. He said: "Whoever is caught should be severely punished. The regulation provides for a two-year suspension, not nine months as in the case of Puerta [5]". "We knew that the Argentinians were capable of running for 4 hours on a field but I don't think he is making generalities, tempers our consultant Florent Serra. However, it is true that during this period, many of them got caught. And that can be difficult for the opponents who faced them on important matches. For example, I know that Paul-Henri Mathieu was angry at one point. » The former No. 36 player in the world refers to the 3rd round lost by PHM against Guillermo Canas at Roland Garros in 2005 (6-3, 7-6, 2-6, 6-7, 8-6). "I was still led two sets to nothing. But it's true that I came back and I have match points in the 5th set. It was mostly a big frustration afterwards, because Canas tested positive right afterwards. He stole something from me, he confessed in 2016. Looking back, it was hard to take it. ». Especially because in the next round, Canas' opponent withdrew and Canas found himself in the quarter-finals without playing... against Mariano Puerta! "Perhaps there was a big thing to do [6]", PHM was bitterly conceded at the time.

Some people will (rightly) see this as a way of taking responsibility for his suspension, but Mariano Puerta has regularly made a point of putting it into context in his statements. On his return from suspension, he simply evokes "a cultural problem": "We are in the Third World. This is something that doesn't happen to Europeans or South American players. I don't think we are sufficiently informed on the subject. And then it's a coincidence... these things happen, but it's nothing more than that. [7] "   Under the microphone of Sebastian Torok, journalist at the Argentinean daily newspaper La Nacion, his words have changed little, more than 15 years later: "We have to take into account the fact that at the time, anti-doping controls in tennis were not so present. In 2003, it began to be more severe, with unannounced controls in your houses. Until then, I had already been on the circuit for six years, but I had had less than five tests, which meant that I had to be a little lighter if I got sick. I wasn't so aware of this. Then came Chela's case, mine, and everyone started to be on alert. My responsibility was to know the details of the subject. [8] » Mariano Puerta's suspension will run until July 2004. During this time, he fell back into depression and gained 20 kilos. When he comes back on the circuit in the skin of the cheater, he points beyond the 400th place in the world ... The thread of his career is to be resumed in full. But how to re-mobilize after that? Encouraged by his family and friends, helped by his manager Jorge Brasero who has been working hard to find sponsors for him, Mariano Puerta comes out of his hole.   "That year, I traveled for two months with a scale to help him lose weight. I went crazy trying to get him to play tennis again, to cheer him up. Because he was a fat guy hanging around," recalls Andrés Schneiter, his former coach during this delicate period. "It took me a long time to get over it. At the time it was very complicated to endure all that without knowing where I had gone wrong, commented Mariano Puerta in May 2005 before his second positive test. In spite of everything, I never got away from tennis even though I had some very difficult moments. I learned to be strong in my head and to take advantage of the people who were always by my side [10]". At the beginning of 2004, he announces that he will mainly take over as a challenger and in a few tournaments of the main circuit. "I'm going to come back well physically and in these 250 tournaments, it is possible to make some moves and to move up the rankings quickly [11]".  Andrés Schneiter has put together a workout for him, mainly physical, to reassign him. The fallen player returned to competition on July 5, 2004, at the San Benedetto challenger. Two weeks later, he met Florent Serra in the last round of the qualification round of the 250 tournament in Umag . « I remember this match very well because it was the first time I had access to a board on the main circuit, recalls our consultant. Puerta was a very good clay court player, and of course, I thought it would be a tough match. But as he was coming back from suspension, I was hoping he might not be totally sharp. He had played 5 games as a challenger since his return only. In fact, he was well on top for a set and a half. He put everything in during that time and then I saw that he was starting to sin physically. It freed me up a bit. It was very wet so it's always a bit complicated when you're not totally physically fit. He got cramped and had to give up at the beginning of the third set. ». The Frenchman will continue on his way and win his first match on the main circuit against Bohdan Ulihrach. As for the Argentinean, he will have to take a step back to get back into the top 100, "To come back, I've raced challengers in Iran, Uzbekistan and everywhere. [12]». And obviously he doesn't have particularly fond memories of that. « There you had to choose between sleeping in a luxury hotel, which cost you $500 a night, or spending it in a pigsty, he says in 2010. One time I had to go to the airport in one of those countries and there was no line, they were all crammed together. There was a lot of pushing and shoving. I had a choice between killing someone or sitting on the side and waiting for three hours. You can't imagine what it was like. I swore that I would never go back to those places again [13]. » He even played a Futures tournament in October in Santiago, which he won by conceding only 19 games during the week, a way of showing that he did not intend to vegetate here. The month of November and December will be particularly fruitful, since the native of Buenos Aires will manage to win two challenger tournaments (out of 3 finals played). At the dawn of 2005, it is clear that Mariano Puerta has regained a new dynamic. He had to do a lot of physical work in order to lose his unnecessary kilos, thanks to the contribution of his new physical trainer Dario Lecman. The latter (who will have a certain importance in the rest of this story) even marvels at his "45 kg of muscles when the average person has only thirty" [14]!  In February 2005, he reached the final of the tournament in Buenos Aires and had to meet a friend from his youth, Gaston Gaudio.

Gaston Gaudio (2009) at Roland Garros

The Franco-Argentinean manager Jorge Brasero spoke in the Nacion columns about the complex relationship between the two players. However, he had to manage the careers of both players at the same time, which was not without difficulty. "Gaston was a complicated guy, but very smart. And with Mariano, they couldn't see each other. They were in the same age category.  Mariano always beat him when they were kids, but then Gaston got his revenge because he exploded in 2004 by winning Roland Garros. And he even beat him in the final in Buenos Aires when Mariano came back. » On that day, Mariano Puerta lost by a clear score (6-4, 6-4) against his long-time rival, a real disappointment for him. "He was 5th in the world without having achieved great results on hard surfaces, grass or indoors. He took all he could get, he made the most of his game [15]", laconically judged Mariano Puerta a few years later. The Argentinean pitbull was outclassed in the final, but the opportunity will soon arise again at the Casablanca tournament in April. By beating Juan Monaco in the final, Mariano Puerta confirms his return to the forefront. "I had to work hard to come back because I am not the kind of player who scores three points in a row just by serving. I have to run a lot. My problems have served to strengthen my mind and make every victory more important.  [16] » Roland Garros is not far away... During the Parisian tournament, the player shows his great determination in front of the press. "I climbed from 400th to 37th in the world. What could I be afraid of? [17]». Mariano Puerta fears no one, not even Ivan Ljubicic, 14th in the world, who comes towards him in the first round. The draw did not spoil him, but it doesn't matter, Mariano Puerta will settle the matter in 3 sets against an opponent who will still take some time to adapt to the clay court. « Even though I came here with a good record on clay - maybe the best behind Rafael Nadal - and I was 30th in the world, I knew it was going to be tough, he said. My goal was to get to week two and when I got there, I opened up a little bit [18]. »   After a victory against Kristof Vliegen, against a very young Stan Wawrinka, and then another demonstration against his compatriot José Acasuso (an opponent he has always beaten), Puerta finds himself in the quarter-finals against his friend Guillermo Canas, for a match that promises to be tough between two pure earthlings. "What's funny is that at the time, the FFT had put this match as a reference on how French players should play on clay," reveals Florent Serra. Without a doubt, some may find it debatable that we should take as an example a match between two opponents with such sulfurous careers!   The confrontation in itself turns out to be as violent as expected, between two hardened opponents who have been throwing logs at each other for more than 3 hours. Leading 2 sets to 1, Mariano Puerta will have to work hard to turn the match around. But better physically than his opponent, he will benefit from Canas' leg problems in the last set to qualify for the semi-final. "Mariano deserved the victory, he played more aggressively than me and showed a lot of courage on the important points," said the defeated player at the end of the match [19]. Being aware at that moment that he is coming back from far away, Mariano Puerta can exult: "I am the last Argentine in the tournament, something must happen! I don't think about everything that happened before. I think it helped me to be stronger psychologically, now that every victory is even more important for me" [20].   In the semifinals, the match promises to be just as intense against Nicolay Davydenko, as both opponents have not yet  reach the Grand Slam stage of competition.

This was felt from the very beginning of the match, with Davydenko showing himself to be particularly tense about what was at stake. Mariano Puerta starts, him, without complex, releasing his enormous lifts which hurt the Russian terribly. The latter sweeps the field, suffers and logically loses the first set.   But he finds his tennis in the second set and the confrontation tightens between two opponents with a hallucinating mastery of the geometry of the court. We are witnessing a beautiful opposition of style between a player using a spin that is very difficult to negotiate and another who plays the balls much flatter.   And in this 2nd set, it is Puerta who ends up cracking at some key moments and lets the 2nd set (7-5) slip away. In the third set, the Russian rolls out, deploying with more ease his game in cadence. The dynamics of the match were completely reversed and Mariano Puerta found himself in a very bad position as in the previous round. While it was hard to imagine the Argentinian turning the situation around, he holds on and even manages to take the Russian's serve. At the end of a very hard fought set, the Argentinian manages to stick 2 sets everywhere.   During the 5th set, the tenacious Argentine had to start a new run. Leading 4-2, he manages to catch up. Continuing his dreaded forehand shots, he definitively broke the Russian lock by breaking in the same time. He concludes on his first match ball with another devastating forehand.   The Argentinian savours, he is in the final of Roland Garros and will have to face for the title a young Spanish 19 years old, with long teeth, who aims at a first Grand Slam title, Rafael Nadal .

Episode 3 to follow : La Puerta Del Cielo (The Gate of Paradise)