WASHINGTON -- Perhaps never before in tennis has a player been as unanimously hated by his peers as Wayne Odesnik is right now.
After being caught by Australian customs officials in January of 2010 when eight vials of HGH (human growth hormone) were found in his luggage, Odesnik was allowed to continue playing through April of that year while the investigation against him proceeded.
Unlike so many other players who had tested positive for banned substances and came up with elaborate explanations (like 15-year-old Sesil Karatantcheva's abortion or Richard Gasquet's cocaine kiss) to show how they were not at fault, Odesnik stood by no excuse. He declined to talk about details of his case, but could never explicitly deny that he had possessed the drug.
But between the time Odesnik's guilty plea was made public in March of 2010 and his punishment was handed down by the ITF a month later, the outcry for his ouster from the sport became deafening, from players and media alike.
One of his vocal critics was a compatriot, (then) top-ranked American Andy Roddick, whom Odesnik had practiced with for a week in Roddick's hometown of Austin the previous summer.
"There's nothing worse than that," said Roddick before Odesnik's sentence was handed down.
"That's just plain cheating, and they should throw him out of tennis. There's just no room for it."
The lack of any sort of loyalty or support from his fellow Americans wasn't entirely surprising. Odesnik had never been a player at the center of American tennis, socially or politically. He wasn't part of the clique of players (Roddick, James Blake, Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey, John Isner) training in Saddlebrook, Florida, nor was his name on the tip of Patrick McEnroe's tongue the way the others' were.
As a result of not being especially popular (or even acknowledged) in the important circles of American tennis, Odesnik received far fewer wild cards into tournaments than did other up-and-coming Americans, a pattern he had rued in his 2009 interview with SB Nation.
Despite the tornado of negative attention and criticism that surrounded him, Odesnik played well in the weeks between his admission and sentencing. In April 2010 at the U.S. Men's Clay Court Championships in Houston, an unseeded Odesnik won three rounds, beating Jerzy Janowicz, Mikahil Kukushkin and Xavier Malisse to reach the semifinals. Odesnik's semifinal against Sam Querrey was a contentious one, as a boisterous crowd ignored any typical tennis pretense of cheering for both players, rooting Querrey on passionately to a tight three-set victory, 7-5 in the third.
After Houston, Odesnik was given a ban of two years, retroactive to when the offense occurred in January 2010.
But at the end of the 2010, the ITF reduced its penalty to just seven months of time prohibited from playing (time served) for "substantial assistance provided by Mr. Odesnik in relation to the enforcement of professional rules of conduct."
The details of that "assistance" were never made public by the ITF. Kurier, an Austrian newspaper, reported that Odesnik's suspension was halved because of reports he made against Austrian Daniel "Crazy Dani" Koellerer. In May of 2011, Koellerer was slapped with a lifetime ban from tennis.
A counter-punching South African-born American lefty, Odesnik, now 25, had his best run at a grand slam when he made third round of the French Open in 2008, losing a tight three-setter to No. 3 Novak Djokovic.
But stripped of all previously acquired ranking points and (for obvious reasons) not granted any wild cards by larger tournaments, Odesnik had to start 2011 at the very lowest levels of the professional game: the qualifying of a Futures tournament.
His progress has been remarkable. Winning Challengers in Tallahassee and Lexington, Odesnik has acquitted himself nicely on his road back, compiling an overall record of 50-9 at the Futures and Challenger levels, and winning both of his matches at Challengers against top 100 players (Americans Michael Russell and Donald Young).
Without a ranking of any sort -- essentially a brand new player as far as the computer was concerned -- Odesnik has soared up the charts, all the way to No. 161 in the first seven months of 2011. With no points to defend the rest of the year, Odesnik (whose career high ranking is No. 77) seems poised to re-enter the top 100 by year's end.
Though Odesnik never broke the top 75 in the rankings and hadn't played an ATP tournament in over a year, players at the highest levels of the game maintained strong opinions on what sort of fate they thought Odesnik had deserved. Last week, an unsolicited ATP No. 4 Andy Murray chimed in to the chorus of Odesnik's detractors via Twitter, saying that he thought Odesnik deserved no accolades for his meteoric rise back through the ranks.
A week later, Murray (and others) rose to the defense of American Robert Kendrick, who was given a one-year ban from the sport for a positive test for a stimulant that was caused by taking a pill to combat jet lag. Several players went as far as to make a Facebook group supporting Kendrick's cause.
The week after Kendrick's ban was handed down, Wayne Odesnik played his first ATP tournament since his suspension was lifted, entering qualifying at the 2011 Legg Mason Tennis Classic in Washington, DC, an ATP 500 level tournament that is part of the US Open Series.
Odesnik won his first qualifying match against Jesse Levine (another foreign-born American lefty), but not without a blemish. As Odesnik stepped to the line to serve on match point, a spectator shouted out, "HGH!"
Odesnik stepped off the line, and paused for a moment. He then walked back to the line, served, and won the point, his first win of any kind at an ATP tournament since his comeback.
In his next match, a match that would have put him directly into the main draw with a win, Odesnik lost in straight sets to Rajeev Ram, an American journeyman currently over 70 spots lower than Odesnik in the ATP rankings. Odesnik was not thrilled with his loss, a sentiment he expressed through some questionable behavior during the post-match handshakes.
Odesnik's run in Washington should have ended there, but the least popular American got an unexpected assist from current American No. 1 Mardy Fish.
Fish pulled out of the tournament after the draw was made and matches had begun, meaning that his slot in the draw was to be given to a lucky loser (the highest-ranked player to lose in the final round of qualifying). And in Washington, that oh-so-lucky loser was Wayne Odesnik. Odesnik slid into Fish's place in the 64th line of the draw, putting him opposite the bye in the 63rd line of the draw and immediately into the tournament's second round.
Professional tennis consists open tournaments, rather than invitationals. A tennis player doesn't need to be offered a contract in order to compete professionally, he simply needs to have a high enough ranking to make it into the field.
Since his ranking was higher than the cutoff for qualifying, neither the ATP nor the tournament director at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic had any way of preventing Odesnik from entering and playing. Nor did they have any means of keeping him out of the main draw and the second round once Fish withdrew.
After he had gotten into the draw, Odesnik could be seen walking around the grounds of the tournament with a huge grin on his face. Congratulated on making it into the main draw, Odesnik bluntly replied, "Thanks. It's good money."
While hardly a poetic sentiment, it was a true one. Originally set to receive $775 for losing in the final round of qualifying, Odesnik was now guaranteed at least $7,585 for making it to the second round of the main draw, more money than he had received for being champion at the Lexington Challenger ($7,200) weeks earlier.
Not everyone else seemed as happy about Odesnik's return as he did.
More specifically, no one else seemed happy about it.
Players, normally hesitant to say anything disparaging about one of their peers to the media, went completely out of their way during press conferences to voice their displeasure over Odesnik's presence at the tournament.
After upsetting defending champion David Nalbandian, James Blake spoke extensively about the closeness of the American men on tour, talking about the support they show one another by attending each other's matches, and reminiscing about years of shared hotel rooms and crowded tables at Applebee's.
But it was clear that one American would not be part of Blake's scrapbook. When asked about Robert Kendrick's aforementioned suspension, Blake finished his defense of Kendrick by comparing his actions favorably to what Odesnik had done (the same comparison Ryan Sweeting had made earlier in the day).
"To go out that way I don't think is fair," Blake said of Kendrick. "Especially when we've got a guy playing in this tournament that has done a lot worse."
The ATP representative proctoring the press conference was about to wrap things up after only a few questions (though the presser had been far longer than average because of Blake's interminable responses to even the simplest queries), but I couldn't leave that last statement of his hanging.
SBN: James, you alluded at the end of your Kendrick answer to Wayne Odesnik, who is playing his first ATP main draw since his suspension here. You also talked about the closeness of the American guys--what is Odesnik's status in American tennis right now? Is he completely excluded?
James Blake: Oh, is he American? I didn't even know that.
I wouldn't say that he's at our dinner table too often, that he's at our card games too often. I actually don't think I've said a whole lot to him since he's been back.
I didn't agree with what he did, and I think I even saw some article about him where he even admitted that he probably wasn't that close to that many Americans before all this happened. And now that it has happened, there's probably even more of a divide.
He's never really been on the forefront of any of our minds as a guy to call, as a guy to really support, or to go out and cheer for. As I said, those kids are out there cheering for me, and I can't say I've ever seen Wayne doing the same for any of us.
The answer struck me immediately as an uncharacteristically petty response from a guy as gracious as Blake is understood to be. I understood his lack of geniality toward someone he saw as a cheater, but for his answer to boil down to "he's never been in our clique, so we can't like him, and that makes him non-American" seemed like an awfully middle school-type of attitude for a veteran player to have.
After he talked fondly about his run through the 2007 Legg Mason Tennis Classic (in which he won five-straight matches in third set tiebreakers), I asked John Isner (another American), a similar question.
Isner far more ably found a way to make clear that he's not happy with Odesnik being here (making the de rigeur Kendrick comparison along the way), but fell far short of matching Blake's sentiment that Odesnik's damning fault was not being part of the American circle of friends.
SBN: John, you were talking about all your good memories from the 2007 tournament here, and in the third round here in 2007 you played Wayne Odesnik, who is making his comeback to the ATP Tour level here at this tournament, his first since he was suspended. You played him a lot back in those years -- what was your relationship like with him back then, and how is it now?
John Isner: Our relationship has always been pretty cordial, with him. He's not a guy I text with or talk with, at all, really. But yeah, he's making his return, he's had some good results lately, after his suspension was shortened. You know, it is what it is. He's back, they allowed him to play, and he's doing it. You can't fault him for that.
But I think, in my opinion, he got let off the hook a little bit. Whereas a guy like Robert Kendrick, in my opinion, really got a raw deal. A really, really raw deal. And that's unfortunate, and I think that me and some other friends and colleagues are trying to help him out in any way possible, because I can say with 1,000 percent certainty that he wasn't trying to enhance his game in any way possible. He made a mistake, and he's paying a steep price for it. Too steep of a price, in my opinion.
SBN: Do you think you or the other Americans would ever be able to let Odesnik back into the fold? Even if maybe he was never in the fold?
John Isner: Yeah, he kinda wasn't...in the fold that much. Because he would kind of hop -- it's not like he was playing ATP events regularly, every week. But, yeah, I wouldn't really say he was in the fold. Guys like me, James [Blake], Sam [Querrey], Mardy [Fish] and Andy [Roddick] were really, really close, and guys coming up like Ryan Harrison are all really close, but with Wayne, that relationship has never been like that.
But what mattered more for the tournament and more for Odesnik's story was not what other players what say, but what his own racquet would speak for him on the court in his second round match against Radek Stepanek Wednesday.
In a clear attempt to make the match as hidden as possible, tournament organizers scheduled Odesnik-Stepanek on Court 2, the smallest of the tournament's four match courts by a considerable margin. They had also scheduled it for 4 p.m., as the first match of the day on that court, keeping it as far from prime time as possible.
While spectators filled the other courts, only a few people had found their ways to Court 2 before the match. As Odesnik could see as he jogged to warm himself up behind the fence of the court, more than half of those present were press. A cluster of photographers set up huge, telescoping lenses that dwarfed the tiny confines of Court 2, a physical symbol of the media magnifying glass which would be pointed at Odesnik in the sweltering afternoon heat.
Odesnik won the coin toss and chose to serve, and held easily and confidently to open the match. But a steadily intensifying rain stopped play during the changeover at 1-0, and the players walked off the court and into the bowels of the stadium.
When the Stepanek and Odesnik returned to the court almost two hours later, it quickly became clear that Odesnik's game had been left behind.
Stepanek held to love, and then broke serve next game with a Odesnik double fault on break point. Stepanek kept his rubber-soled foot on Odesnik's throat from there on, winning 24 of 29 points in the first set after the rain delay, and not missing a single first serve in the entire set.
Clearly frustrated with how the match had turned, Odesnik began loudly complaining about calls, including one that he wanted Australian chair umpire Simon Cannavan to overrule despite it being in the furthest corner from the chair.
Odesnik continued to carry on with Cannavan several times as the match slipped away late in the first set and early in the second.
"You can't be doing this job if you miss calls like that," Odesnik shouted at Cannavan, who recently officiated at Wimbledon. Surprisingly, Odesnik, too, thought he was in a position to criticize someone's presence at the tournament.
Trailing 6-1, 5-0, having lost 11 straight games and on the verge of a virtual double bagel, Odesnik held at love to stop the bleeding and get on the scoreboard for the first time since the rain delay. "It feels like I'm waking up from a bad nightmare," he said as Stepanek prepared to serve out the match.
Stepanek euthanized the match six points later, wrapping up the win in only 57 minutes. The victory could have been even shorter had it not been for Odesnik slowing down the match with racquet changes and a lengthy bathroom break between sets. Odesnik had won only 23 points.
The two shook hands at the net uneventfully and walked off the court to polite applause.
Not taking the normal time to stretch, shower and recuperate that most players do, Odesnik went nearly straight from the court to the media tent.
Odesnik walked into the interview room so quickly that he arrived before most of the media did, and looked determined to put on a brave face and make the his baptism by fire back onto the tour as painless as possible.
"Certainly more of you here than there were a couple years ago, heh," Odesnik joked nervously.
"Who says bad publicity isn't good publicity?"
The elephant in the room was so huge that the opening question by Liz Clarke of The Washington Post began with "I've got one about the match, actually."
"Yeah, obviously I didn't play anything close to my level," Odesnik said.
"I think I started off really well. I felt good, but after the rain delay I was a bit sluggish. He broke me early on, and was playing well. He just kind of rolled with it, and it was tough to get back into the match."
"But, I think one of the goals this year, with my coach, was to try to play as many challenger events, try as win as many matches as I could, for the confidence reason. At the tour level, sometimes you can go a few weeks without winning before you have a good week."
"It's just to see where my level's at. In six months I've gone from nothing to No. 150 in the world. So I can't lose sight of that, and just gotta keep working hard. It will come."
There was plenty of time for the elephant to stomp on everyone in sight, so questions stayed more indirect for the next while.
SBN: You said after you won your first game of the second set that it was like waking up from a bad nightmare. Just how much were things going wrong for you today?
Wayne Odesnik: At the end of the day--I think a couple years ago I would have been a little more devastated about the loss. But, you know, it's my first ATP event in close to a year and a half. I didn't expect to get in anyway. So I go home with a little bit of money in my pocket, and go on to my next tournament.
SBN: Is that one of your main motivations now, since you've been playing all these Futures and Challengers, to get some money to keep yourself going? Is that something you've had to think about now?
Wayne Odesnik: No, my main goal right now is just to win as many matches as I possibly can this year, and make as many points as possible to make my ranking as high as possible (laughs). It's a very clear goal. Whether I finish the year at No. 150 or No. 50, just trying to do the best I can. Next year, hopefully, set some different goals.
Howard Fendrich (Associated Press): Does this mean a lot to you, being in your first ATP main draw since you've been back?
Wayne Odesnik: Yeah, it's great to back playing at the ATP level. From the tournaments I was playing in January, the qualifying of a Futures, to being at the ATP level. Win or lose, this time around I definitely wanted to try to enjoy it more, and appreciate it a lot more.
By that point, the dance around the elephant had been sufficient.
Steve Whyno (The Washington Times): Do you pay attention to things other players like James Blake are saying about you?
Wayne Odesnik: You know, I think it's funny, you guys asked me this a year and a half ago, and you're still asking me the same questions, and I'm gonna give you the same answer. I'm just trying to do the best that I can, to focus on trying to get to where--I've completely worked my way from the bottom, and in six months I'm back, close to where I was. I'm just trying to do the best that I can.
Howard Fendrich (AP): Do you think its been unfair from other players? They sit here and talk about you. How are you treated by other players?
Wayne Odesnik: First, I don't think they know the facts. Every situation is different. I don't think that they know. They read what you guys write, and obviously there's things that you guys don't know, that I'm not entitled to tell, because it's with the ITF.
I'm not someone to dwell on the past. I'm just trying to move on with my career, with my life, and put it behind me to the best that I can. And that's it. If they have negative things to say, that's them. I'm not going to sit here and bad mouth anyone.
My goal is just to get my life and my career back on track, and surround myself with influential people. My close friends, my family, people who have been there through the good times and the bad, and that's it. Otherwise...they don't matter to me. Good or bad.
Odesnik's (partial) refusal to talk about the past necessitated a somewhat more nuanced way of approaching the elephant.
Brett Haber (Tennis Channel): Forgetting about the facts of the case, and who's right or wrong, I wonder, has the entire episode, as you try to rebuild your career and get back to where you want to be, has it taken any of the enjoyment out of it, knowing that even though you are not speaking about other people, or responding to comments, while you're working on your tennis, that there is this thing that swirls, no matter how much you keep your head down and do your thing, there's ... a residue. Does it suck any of the air out of it for you?
Wayne Odesnik: It's a good question, I think I understand what you're saying. You mean the success that I have had and will have, does it take away from that?
Brett Haber: Well I assume, that's at the core, you love tennis, and you're back to doing what you want to do this week, at the level where you want to do it. That's gotta be a big goal accomplished for you.
Wayne Odesnik: Let me ask you a question. When you do something, whether it's right or wrong at work, and your colleague says something, and you're not too friendly with them, does it affect you in any way?
Brett Haber: Yes.
Wayne Odesnik: It affects you doing your work?
Brett Haber: It doesn't affect the way I do my work, but it affects my overall --
ATP Rep: Is there a question here?
Brett Haber: He was asking me one, so I was just answering it.
Wayne Odesnik: I'm just saying, I'm different. I'm here doing my job to the best of my ability, trying to do all the right things to get myself back where I'm supposed to be. People are human. I don't think it's a matter of what happens in our lives, it's how we respond to certain situations, and I'm just trying to make the best of it.
And in that moment, Odesnik seemed like one of those human people. Talking about the stain of cheating that might never leave him, Haber had clearly struck a nerve, and though his words did not betray nearly as much emotion, Odesnik's eyes began to water and redden.
In his final two answers, Odesnik was finally able to change the discussion from the past to the present and future.
Liz Clarke (The Washington Post): What do you think the last 18 months has cost you? Do you feel the cost was too harsh? Fair?
Wayne Odesnik: I mean, I don't want to get into the past, I'm just trying to move forward.
Yeah, I mean, I definitely learned some things with my career, as well as with my personal life. I think I definitely have taken a lot of positive things from it, the way I perceive, just, life in general. It's a big wake-up call, and you realize that you take things for granted.
You know, I'm just trying to really appreciate the success that I've had in the last six months, and will continue to have in my career. I really look back with no regrets, and knowing that I can do everything that I possibly can to get my career back on track, and try to enjoy it with the people that are important in my life.
SBN: Wayne, did you ever think about not coming back?
Wayne Odesnik: Umm ... I don't think that I ever got that close. I mean there were certainly -- obviously there were times where things were kind of up in the air, the first month or so.
But I'm still young. At the time that it happened I was 24, and I never really thought about doing anything else. I think, in the long run, it's going to help me.
You know, I'm 25, and there's still a lot of tennis to be played ahead of me. I'm excited. It's rejuvenated my career, in a sense, because I'm a lot hungrier. I'm working every day, as hard as I can, whether I had no ranking or I'm No. 150 in the world. So, I think in that sense, it's only going to help my career.
And with no more questions left, Odesnik was excused, and walked out of the media tent.
However defensive he had been at times, Odesnik professed to have turned a page. While there were certainly moments of vulnerability, it often seemed at times as though he was trying to convince himself as much as he was trying to convince us. Could he really have "no regrets," after the spectacular downfall he had caused himself?
However believable or not Odesnik had been, he at least had been able to give his perspective on things for once. After the long chorus that had risen in full voice against him, Odesnik had finally gotten time to say his piece.
But he would not have the last word.
Radek Stepanek, who had so thoroughly fricasseed Odesnik in their match after a slow start, performed similarly in his press conference, which followed Odesnik's by roughly a half-hour.
SBN: Radek, already this week a bunch of players have gone out of their way to lament the fact that Odesnik is in this tournament at all. Had any players said anything to you about him before this match, like "go get him" or something like that about the fact that you were the one playing Odesnik?
Radek Stepanek: No, I didn't talk about it. I didn't follow the story a year and a half ago, so I didn't ... but a few of the players in the locker room today. For me, I just hope to win the next match. I'm not playing for the story behind the match, for me it doesn't matter what his past is.
But now I know what was going on, so definitely ... I don't know how to call it really good in English ... it's not fair, definitely, what he's done. But that's his life. He's wasting his life. And that's what he has to live with. And if he's able to do it, that's his decision, his life.
I'm not the one responsible for making a statement on him. My job is to beat him on the court and move on to the next round in the tournament.
Even if he's American here.
At least the Czech guy didn't pretend not to know that Odesnik is an American.
Eventually, other players will tire of talking about Odesnik's past. But forgiveness doesn't seem quite so inevitable.
In team sports, suspected and convicted cheaters are rarely rejected by their team's fans. If they're helping the team win, their character flaws and transgressions are easily overlooked. Barry Bonds' popularity in San Francisco while the rest of the country loathed him and his swelling head is a perfect example of that.
But Wayne Odesnik will never have home team fans. And as was made clear by Blake (and to a lesser extent by Isner), he doesn't even have teammates.
All Odesnik has is himself, alone on his side of the net. When Odesnik is being outplayed as badly as he was against Stepanek, there's no teammate to pick up the slack, no way for him to be subbed out. All he can do is take his beatings by himself, beatings which look to continue both on and off the court for some time.
But through all that, Odesnik said he never thought about quitting.
The last American to come into the media tent Wednesday was Donald Young, a former teen phenom who has failed to live up to the hype that had surrounded him, and hadn't served himself well recently with profanity-laced lashings out at the USTA on Twitter. Young and Odesnik had been lumped together in one headline earlier in the week as "controversial players," a grouping that hardly seemed fair to Young given his lack of any sort of ban-worthy offenses.
But as a fellow American outsider, and someone who had played Odesnik twice this year at the Challenger level, Young seemed like someone worth asking one last question about Wayne Odesnik.
SBN: Donald, you played a couple times earlier this year against Wayne Odesnik, who just lost here in his first ATP tournament back. What are your thoughts on his form, and in general about his comeback?
Donald Young: Wayne's playing great! He beat me in Savannah, I beat him in the finals of Tallahassee. I think he's playing great. He's back to the way he was playing before, and he's moving well, hitting well, and winning matches again and gaining confidence, so I think it's great.
SBN: Do you think he should have been allowed back into the tour?
Donald Young: Well, he's playing, and it's allowed, so that's what it is. And I think...yeah, that's all I have to say about that one.
After the evisceration other American and non-Americans alike had given Odesnik, Young's words were something close to a whole-hearted endorsement.
Maybe Odesnik's not so alone after all.
Stay tuned to SB Nation's coverage of the 2011 US Open Series at SBNation.com as well as on Twitter, @DailyForehand .