Through the storm

"I took great care of myself. I didn't drink from an open water bottle. I was taking just the right amount of vitamins. I bought everything I drank directly, usually in the country. The only thing I bought abroad was an energy drink from a company that had an agreement with ATP, Lucozade. I sometimes drank a lot of it after long games to recover.” (1) When the Argentinian daily La Nacion raised the issue of doping with Augustin Calleri, the current president of the Argentinean Federation, Calleri recalled the extreme caution he showed when he was a professional gambler, always keeping the last two tablets of a drug he was taking, "just in case, to test for contamination.” Paranoia? "I didn't want to go through what Coria or Chela went through," he says. Formerly the 16th player in the world, Augustin Calleri was part of that golden generation in the early 2000s in Argentina, called "The Legion" that shone so brightly on the ochre surface. Between 2000 and 2007, there was always at least one Argentinian in the quarter-finals at Roland Garros. The 2004 final was the memorable peak of this period for the Auriverde country, with the fratricidal and dramatic confrontation between Gaston Gaudio and Guillermo Coria, won by "El Gato” (2). But this exceptional generation, symbol of this period of splendor for Argentine tennis, also bears an indelible mark: its number of players tested positive. Juan Ignacio Chela in 2001 (methyltestosterone), Martin Rodriguez in 2002 (excess caffeine), Guillermo Canas in 2005 (diuretic) and Mariano Hood in 2006 (finasteride) (3) are among them. Guillermo Coria has tested positive twice. First in 2001 on nandrolone (two-year suspension reduced to seven months) and then in 2005 on a diuretic.

For a long time, the latter cried out for injustice, considering himself a victim of contaminated food supplements. At the time, there could be many cases of cross-contamination: by this I mean the purchase of an authentic product and the discovery that it contained something else, because the safety and hygiene standards of the laboratory or pharmacy were not good," says Diego Grippo, current president of the Argentinean Anti-Doping Commission. The WADA (4) insists a lot on this point: "Beware of food supplements". Basically, the athlete is primarily responsible for what he or she takes". (5) The latter advances other explanations concerning all these cases of doping that have damaged Argentinean sport. "At that time, we were at the dawn of doping controls. Although in soccer, they were done before, in sports centers, it started in 2000 or 2001. There was a certain lack of knowledge, at least in Argentina. Many athletes were not used to doing tests. Nowadays, it is rarer for a professional tennis player not to know that there is a list of prohibited substances.  » (6) Among the names of players caught by the anti-doping patrol, one is missing, that of Mariano Puerta, the first recidivist in the history of tennis. I was surprised," concedes Agustin Calleri, "I was surprised that after 15 years, he confessed that he had lied to CAS. At the time, we trusted what he had said and we believed his statements. I believed in the glass theory. »

The current President of the Argentinean Federation Agustin Calleri (former 16th in the world) at the Masters Series in Madrid in 2007

It is following a Roland Garros noticed in 2005 that Mariano Puerta is tested positive for etilefrine. His argument before the ITF court? He admits having accidentally drunk, just before his final against Rafael Nadal, in his wife's glass, the latter having taken a drug containing the said substance... This version will be his official account for 15 years... Until he finally confesses in August 2020 to the daily newspaper la Nacion to have lied about the whole story! "My lawyers thought it was not strategically wise to tell exactly what happened. Telling the truth could not be good for me. «He admits without regret. This event is the last stage to date of a particularly bumpy course, strewn with scattered flashes of lightning (his final Porte d'Auteuil) and multiple upheavals. Mariano Puerta has won only 3 ATP titles on the circuit, made many anecdotal appearances in the Masters Series and Grand Slam but has left a strange and controversial mark in the history of tennis, to say the least. The native of San Francisco, Argentina, has been immersed in the world of tennis since his early childhood. Throughout his career, his father Ruben has worn many hats: coach (he trained Agustin Calleri and coached Juan Ignacio Chela), technical director at the Guatemalan National Tennis Federation and academy director in Mexico.

Mariano Puerta began playing tennis at the age of 5. The father encourages his offspring, who shows good dispositions for the little yellow ball. Throughout his career, he will never stay away from Mariano until he shows too much interference in his son's career, according to some witnesses. I didn't like his father," said Jorge Brasero, former manager of Mariano Puerta. He knew tennis very well, but he was not a good influence on his son. When Mariano exploded, he wanted to make a place for himself, he liked the cameras. But Mariano was adamant: the glory was for him. All this did not bring anything good. » The young Argentinian keeps a good memory of his childhood. It was a great time, I took my training as a player very seriously from an early age and I always had a lot of fun," he recalls in 2010. I have very fond memories of my travels when I was 14, 16 or 18 years old. (7)” As a teenager, his father didn't hesitate to take the suit and take his family around the country and allow Mariano to play in regional junior tournaments. It was during an exhibition organized in the town of Dolores that Mariano narrowly escaped a tragedy. Mariano and his brother are in the back of the van when they are victims of a carbon monoxide leak. When the father stops for gas, he speaks to his children but realizes that they are asleep and do not react. I woke up in the hospital," says Mariano Puerta 25 years later. The doctor told us that if my father hadn't stopped, we would have come home dead. (8) ». This event is only the first of a long series of clashes that will span his entire career. The latter is off to a good start. Ten years before meeting Rafael Nadal on the Philippe Chatrier court, he qualified for the junior final of Roland Garros (lost to his compatriot and friend Mariano Zabaleta). That year, he finishes at a nice 4th place in the junior ranking.

Two years later, he made his debut on the ATP circuit. His progress is dazzling and he quickly shows excellent dispositions on the European clay court. The first thing you notice when you see him play is that Mariano Puerta is not a very mobile player, but the power he gives off on the court is impressive. These are real slaps full of lift that his opponents have to wipe from all sides of the court. And the results were soon felt, as in 1998 he won his first ATP tournament in Palermo and reached the final of the San Marino tournament. In one year, he has gained a hundred places and ranks 39th in the ATP ranking. After a bad year where he fell back beyond the 100th place in the world, Mariano Puerta then comes back to the forefront at the beginning of the second millennium: 6 finals on clay in 6 months but only one title however, in Bogota against Younès El Aynaoui. The first semester of the year 2000 appears in many ways as unfinished but the Argentinean bison can nevertheless be satisfied to knock on the door of the Top 20.

All this is happening before what will be the first big test of his career. The Argentinian decided not to go to the Sydney Olympics to take advantage of the absence of the top players on the circuit. "I decided to stay in Europe and play two clay court tournaments where I was one of the favourites. But on one of them, in Palermo, I injured my wrist during a warm-up. » Mariano Puerta wants to keep on his good form and plays undercover. But the injury is getting worse. Diagnosis: perforation of the triangular ligament of the right wrist, as Juan Martin Del Potro later experienced with his left wrist...» The wrist is the extension of the racket, I think it must be the worst injury a tennis player can have! It is the part of your body that suffers all the impact, Puerta admitted in 2010. It's terrible for the head to deal with this kind of problem. (9) " The Argentinean resolves to have an operation by a specialist. The specialist does not hide the seriousness of his injury and suggests that the chances of success of the operation are low. "Luckily, everything went well, but that's when I started to struggle mentally and my career became unstable," he admits. (10) Mariano Puerta is going back to Argentina for his convalescence but he can't hold still; he wants to play as soon as possible! He finally resumes training but it is difficult for him to hold on for more than an hour because his wrist ends up swelling and hurting him a lot.

Months go by and things get better but his staff, composed of his coach, his father and his physical trainer, considers that he is not yet ready to compete again. However, the stubborn Argentinean doesn't know how to listen to his body and wants to return to the circuit. "I didn't listen to them, I signed up for the Miami tournament. I played and it was a disaster.” After that came some very difficult months. Mariano Puerta won't make it past one more round of a tournament before beating Arnaud Clément, seeded n°12, at Roland Garros, 9/7 in the 5th set. A liberation! The Argentinian was finally able to play a very long match but he will logically pay for his efforts in the next round. "My level was good but I couldn't manage to keep up. I didn't listen to the people around me, I was wrong. That's one of the biggest criticisms I've ever had. If I hadn't been stubborn, I think I could have had another career. 2001 was a wasted year. I had finished in the top 20 the year before and now I was 250th in the world. (11)” Stuck in the shallows of the ATP circuit, the Argentinean drags his shadow in modest tournaments and struggles to win matches. A year after his last match at Roland Garros, his situation has changed little and he has to make up his mind to go through the qualifying round of the Parisian tournament. "I didn't bounce back in 2002. I felt responsible for my failure after my operation. I was so aware of it that I was deliberately sabotaging myself on the court. I was putting balls out on purpose, I wasn't making an effort, I wasn't chasing balls," he concedes. Nor is he beyond reproach off the court. "It takes a lot of humility to succeed in life. My best years were when I was the thinnest. It was very easy for me to gain weight but much harder to lose it! It was a struggle throughout my career. But I'm not going to lie to myself, when it comes to nutrition, I was not as professional as I should have been and I regret that. (12) " The Argentinean press is also having a great time and congratulates me with a nice nickname, "Fat Puerta" ...

Mariano Puerta in 2001

The Argentinean's morale is at half-mast and his wife convinces him to go see a psychologist. A good decision in short since the latter manages to make him accept his heavy mistakes. "She changed my life. At one point, she told me: either you forgive yourself or it's over. I couldn't go on like that. (13) ” He gradually resurfaced and managed to find his way back into the top 100, but his career was about to take another turn for the worse. In March 2003, Puerta played in a tournament in Chile and was tested for doping after his second round. The verdict was implacable: the Argentinean was positive for clenbuterol, a respiratory stimulant and an anabolic, sought after by athletes for its remarkable properties to burn fat and accentuate the growth of muscle fibers. (14) “I was informed in April, they phoned me and we met with the ATP people," he said in 2004. I immediately recognized that I had taken this substance but I demonstrated why I had done it (15).” The Argentinian justifies the use of this drug with asthma problems: "When I was a child, I never used to fall asleep with my inhaler on my bedside table. My brother's daughter was born with heart problems and I was going through some complicated times during the tournament. I had an asthma attack. I was given treatment but I forgot to put the medication on the medication list. (16) I paid dearly for my negligence. The worst part is that later on, this medication was approved and I was able to take it until the last day of my career! ». The case is very delicate, but the gambler has the benefit of his doctor's testimony that he was prescribed the drug. (17)  Initially planned for a period of 2 years, the accused sees his suspension finally reduced to 9 months by the ATP, after a trial that will cost Puerta the sum of 70 000 dollars...

Shortly after this verdict, he passes for the second time very close to death in his home, in the district of Palermo, in Buenos Aires. While he wishes to go back up in his apartment, the not very reassuring elevator of his building gets blocked and becomes uncontrollable. Taken by panic, the Argentinian forces the doors to be able to leave. He managed to get out in extremis but was hit by the elevator shaft which collapsed "one block, like a stone, eighteen floors down...". More fear than harm, the miraculous man escapes with a neck brace for a few weeks.

It was said that the life of Mariano Puerta would be a succession of roller coasters, episodes of gloom and rebirth. Once again, he fell into depression, but he would soon find the resources to live the most exciting period of his career...

Episode 2 to follow : Investigation on Mariano Puerta, itinerary of a tumultuous career

[1] [2] The cat, nickname of Gaston Gaudio [3] This doubles player justified himself by saying that he had been taking these pills, which are supposed to fight baldness, for nine years. [4]  The World Anti Doping Agency [5] [6] [7] [8] [9] [10] [11]ibid [12]ibid [13]ibid [14] [15] [16] [17]L’Equipe, October 5th 2005 [18]ibid

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