Odesnik begins comeback from HGH suspension

Commencing a career comeback in a tiny tennis tournament, Wayne Odesnik had to bring his own towel, pick up balls between points and refill his water bottle from a rusty courtside fountain.

It's all part of his punishment for importing human growth hormone into Australia.

Odesnik played and won Wednesday in his first tournament match since serving a one-year suspension by the International Tennis Federation. Stripped of his ranking, the former top-100 player was forced to begin his comeback on the Futures circuit, the lowest rung of U.S. Tennis Association professional events.

"I really wanted to prove to everybody and myself I can do it again from scratch," Odesnik said. "And I will."

Playing in the Plantation Open only a few minutes from his home in Weston, Odesnik found himself on a city park court with no ballboys or linesmen. The scoreboard consisted of two sets of flip cards by the net post, which the chair umpire would update during changeovers, except when he forgot. A few dozen spectators milled about, their attention often diverted by other matches, and even Odesnik's best shots were usually met with silence.

"I've been through it before. It doesn't affect me at all," said Odesnik, who toiled professionally for five years before winning an ATP Tour match for the first time in 2007. "There's a guy on the other side of the net, and I'm trying to win. That's all I'm thinking about."

Odesnik beat Teodor-Dacian Craciun of Romania 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to earn his first ranking point of the year. It's an important one, making him eligible for qualifying tournaments at the USTA's more lucrative Challenger level. Those events offer at least $50,000 in prize money, while the Plantation Open's purse is only $10,000, with $1,300 going to the champion.

It's a side of the sport many tennis fans never see. And it's the only way for Odesnik to rebuild his career after customs officers discovered HGH in his baggage when he arrived in Australia for a tournament a year ago.

Odesnik has said he bought the performance-enhancing substance to treat a recurring injury and intended to apply for a therapeutic use exemption. He denied using HGH and never tested positive, but he drew harsh criticism from fellow American players, most notably Andy Roddick.

"That's just plain cheating, and they should throw him out of tennis," Roddick said last year. "There's just no room for it."

Some are more forgiving.

"Wayne and I never had any problems," former top-100 player Jesse Levine said after being eliminated in the first round Wednesday. "He's a good guy. It's great that he's back. I respect him and wish him luck."

Odesnik said he has been humbled by his experience. But he bristled at the mention of criticism from his peers, and said he'll use it to his advantage.

"I can't control what other people think or say," he said. "It's obviously not based on the facts, what they're saying. They can think what they want. It just motivates me more."

The 5-foot-11 Odesnik has always been a grinder. While he lacks overpowering strokes, he climbed in 2009 to a career-best 77th in the rankings, and he played in 10 consecutive Grand Slam tournaments before his suspension.

Odesnik's coach, Guillermo Canas, didn't attend Wednesday's match. Mike Daley, who coached Odesnik as a teenager, watched his former pupil win and predicted a successful comeback.

"It's hard to do, but there's a path," Daley said. "He's got the work ethic, and he's smart."

Odesnik hopes to play two more Futures events before switching to the Challenger circuit. His goal is to return to the top 100 by the end of the year.

"When you almost lose something overnight — that's what I mean about being humbled by the experience," he said. "This time around, I think I'll appreciate tennis more and really enjoy it. I realize I'm getting to do what I love for a living.

"Sometimes you take it for granted, but I see how many of my friends don't have jobs, and I realize what it is to go sit in an office. It's not that glamorous. For the rest of my career, I'll always cherish the opportunity I have."