In ‘Trophy Son,’ Fictional Character Accuses Real Life Tennis Stars of Doping
The professional tennis trainer Bobby Hicks claims nearly everyone at or near the top of the men’s tour uses performance-enhancing drugs.
“It’s pervasive in tennis and has been for years,” Hicks said.
And he is willing to name names, starting with Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray and David Ferrer.
There is one catch to these very public accusations: Bobby Hicks is a fictional character.
Hicks appears in Douglas Brunt’s new novel, “Trophy Son,” which will be released next week. It tells the story of Anton Stratis, a tennis prodigy whose childhood is stripped away by an ambitious father who nurtures talent and resentment in his son. Stratis, his entourage and his rivals are all made up.
For the first 80 or so pages, every character is fictional. But then, in Chapter 15, Brunt drops in Hicks’s speculation.
More than anything else in the novel, those few lines are likely to leap off the pages into a public debate.
Brunt said that was not his intention.
“I didn’t set out to write some book on performance-enhancing drugs,” he said. “As a matter of plot, it’s a small percentage and sort of a side thread to the overall sacrifice these athletes make in any sport.”
Brunt worked as a management consultant, in venture capital and as an internet security chief executive before setting out as a novelist. He reached The New York Times’s best-seller list with his debut, “Ghosts of Manhattan,” about a Bear Stearns whiz just before the Great Recession, and his follow-up, “The Means,” about a political campaign and a savvy, enterprising and beautiful journalist.
Brunt, 45, has three young children with his wife, the anchor Megyn Kelly of NBC.
“Trophy Son” was inspired by how childhood sports have changed since his youth to become highly specialized and competitive, as the pressures on athletes trickle down from colleges to high school to youth sports, adding incentives for them to try performance-enhancing drugs.
“Those are the years when you are being socialized and should be figuring out how to engage the world,” said Brunt, sitting at the table in Edgar’s Cafe on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where he writes by hand for three hours each morning.
“But for these athletes it’s like being born into the Church of Scientology,” he said. “How do you know you’re in this crazy church when you don’t know anything else and it all started at an age where you weren’t making your own decisions?”
Stratis’s father resembles Andre Agassi’s, an overbearing former Olympic athlete and immigrant, but Brunt said the proliferation of “these crazy tennis academies” as a replacement for high school has more children “giving up any other kind of life.”
For “Trophy Son,” Brunt said he interviewed teaching pros and current and former players like James Blake and John Isner. Some conversations were about the day-to-day routine on the tour — “what you eat and how long you warm up”; others touched on darker topics. Performance-enhancing drugs, beyond the few high-profile suspensions like those for Marin Cilic and Maria Sharapova, became an unavoidable topic, Brunt said.
And he said using the names of real players was necessary, even though he had no proof they were involved with performance-enhancing drugs.
“It resonates with the reader more if they can ground the issue with a real backdrop,” he said.
Reality’s other interruptions in the book are minor and benign: Stratis plays doubles with Steffi Graf at an Agassi-run benefit; John McEnroe is the voice of tennis broadcasting. But the book never fully resolves this crossover into reality because Stratis never faces Djokovic, Murray or Nadal, instead dethroning a fictional top-ranked player.
Brunt was careful to make connections between real players and doping implicit rather than explicit. In the book, Hicks says a Spanish clinic implicated for distributing performance-enhancing drugs “had a file” on Nadal and Ferrer. Hicks also remarks on Djokovic’s improved stamina and Murray’s more muscular physique.
Brunt said the St. Martin’s Press legal department left his phrasing intact but had him add a line in which Hicks tells Stratis to look at the real website Tennis Has a Steroid Problem for information. (The site no longer updates, but it is still available online.)
“I certainly did not set out to hurt anyone,” Brunt said. “I just wanted to shine the light on this issue.”
Stuart Miller, the International Tennis Federation’s senior executive director of integrity and development, saw it differently.
“Audiences will see this as statement of fact, not just a piece of fiction,” Miller said. “It is a concern for the players, and you could argue that it is defamatory.”
Most representatives for the players named in the book did not want to comment. The Association of Tennis Professionals also did not comment or provide a representative from the Player Council.
None of the players connected to doping in the book have tested positive for a banned substance. And Nadal and Murray in particular have been outspoken about their sport’s issues with performance-enhancing drugs.
Nadal has said he wants all of his test results released to prove he is clean. He also sued a former French sports minister, Roselyne Bachelot, for charging that his seven-month absence in 2012 was not because of a knee injury but instead was a so-called silent ban to hide a positive drug test. The case comes to court in Paris in early July.
Isner said he discussed only daily life on the tour with Brunt and never talked about performance-enhancing drugs. He said he would not have implicated any of those players.
“There’s not one shred of me that believes that those guys are doing anything illegally,” he said. “They work the hardest of anyone, and they deserve everything that they’ve achieved.”
Brunt said that during his research “people in a position to know” told him that the use of performance-enhancing drugs was “prevalent” in tennis.
“I don’t know the truth; I haven’t got the videotape,” he said. “But there have been all sorts of rumors and speculations around certain players.”
The book is “real and pretty true to life, or true to the speculation,” Brunt said, adding, “I’m not the one out here throwing darts — these darts have been thrown for years.”
But just because the darts have previously been thrown does not mean Brunt is not vulnerable legally.
“The fact that the book is fiction doesn’t get you very far when you are talking about real people,” said George Freeman, the executive director of the Media Law Resource Center. Claiming to be repeating what others have said may not hold up, either; many courts do not accept that defense, Freeman said.
But as public figures, the players would have to prove “actual malice,” he added.
“They have to show he had serious doubt as to the truth,” said Freeman, a former assistant general counsel of The New York Times Company. “If he says, ‘I believe it and there is enough out there, even if I can’t prove it,’ that is actually good enough.”
Lloyd Jassin, a lawyer based in New York whose specialties include publishing law, said in an email that much of what Hicks says is the character’s opinion and in the United States, “an opinion is not considered defamatory unless it is couched in or implies false facts.”
Brunt’s book also goes after the International Tennis Federation for putting the sport’s image over a strong and transparent antidoping program, an accusation that has frequently been made in the news media. Players, including Murray and Roger Federer, and antidoping experts have complained about a lack of in-tournament testing and called for more surprise tests away from competition.
Late in the novel, Stratis tests positive for a banned substance, but a tennis federation executive grants a silent ban, allowing Stratis to claim an injury as an excuse for his absence.
“He wanted my test gone as much as I did,” Stratis says in the book. “Not because he liked me personally. He liked that I sold tickets and TV rights and tennis needed a clean image to keep growing revenue.”
Miller of the I.T.F. called that scene “impossible.” He says an independent agency collects the samples and reports not just to the tennis federation, but also to the World Anti-Doping Agency and to the antidoping agency of each player’s home country.
“There are checks and balances, so silent bans where the federation is complicit or colluding can’t happen,” Miller said.
The I.T.F. last year ended the practice of not announcing “provisional suspensions” — during which players awaited hearings on doping violations — acknowledging that they were the same as silent bans. “We want to become as transparent as possible,” David Haggerty, the federation’s president, said.
Miller said that it would be “naïve” to think the sport is totally clean.
“It is always a challenge, but there is no evidence of a systemic problem,” he said. “It is quite disappointing to see the sport being treated this way in this story.”
Brunt stood by his book but said fans like him were somewhat complicit in supporting players they believed might be doping.
“It has tarnished the game a little bit for me,” he said.
But, he added, he still loves to watch it.