Tennis at the (summer) Olympics

As the Winter Olympics are in full swing right now, and it never gets easy finding topics to talk about between the Grand Slams, today I thought we could talk about tennis at the Olympics, the summer variety, of course. For a really long time, tennis at the Olympics really wasn’t taken seriously. Most of the best players regularly skipped it, leading to jarring realizations that many of the greatest players ever don’t have Olympic gold, or even Olympic medals, in their trophy cases, and usually for lack of trying. Pete Sampras is a notable example. Ivan Lendl, too. It was like the Australian Open: nice to win, not really a big deal in the scheme of things.

In fact, tennis wasn’t an Olympic sport for a pretty lengthy span. It was on the slate of activities from 1896-1924, but it was dropped thanks to disputes between the International Tennis Federation and the International Olympic Committee over (you guessed it) amateurism. A quick note: the IOC was rarely in the right in its draconian punishments and policies regarding the amateur status of athletes competing. This is a group that once had a known Nazi sympathizer for a president. But I digress. It returned in 1968 and 1984 as demonstration sports, and in 1988 as a full medal event, right before we entered the current, modern age of allowing professional athletes to compete. (all dates per Wikipedia)

That first tournament is interesting; there really weren’t that many notable players at all in the draw, at least on the men’s side. The highest career rank of the man who won it, Miloslav Mecir, was 4th, and he never fared better than runner-up at the Slams. Participation picked up in 1992, and started to really become popular when Andre Agassi, in the midst of his career metamorphosis, snagged gold in Atlanta in 1996.

Before cementing his legacy bald and clean-shaven, Agassi had a goatee!

Andre Agassi captured gold for the United States in 1996, something that wasn’t considered a must-have for a tennis career to be called complete.

Steffi Graf carved out a special place in history in 1988, winning all 4 Grand Slams and capping it with Olympic gold (the calendar year Golden Slam). But most top players still didn’t care much. Then the ATP and the WTA made the decision to assign a point value to the Olympic tournament starting in 2004, meaning playing it and winning it could have a very positive impact on a player’s chances for improving his or her ranking. While it was already gaining in standing before this, this change caused the proverbial floodgates to open, and what has followed has been some wonderful tennis.

The Olympic tournament has been full of surprises recently, like when clear favorite and world number one Roger Federer went down to defeat early in Athens in 2004. Or when players such as Elena Dementieva, who had made some, but not much, noise at the Slams, took home gold. Or when Chile took two out of the three spots on the podium. Or Federer bouncing back to win a gold in doubles in 2008 (with a man we all need to come to know now, Stanislas Wawrinka).

Normally held on hard courts, we got a real treat in 2012 when the Olympics were held in London, giving us a sort of replay of Wimbledon just a few weeks earlier. I have to admit that it was strange seeing the immaculate green of the All England Club decked out in Olympic livery, even stranger to see the parade of colors the players were wearing representing their countries (club rules dictate that players must wear white during Wimbledon).

In that tournament, we saw Serena Williams in top form, bulldozing her competition to the gold medal (6-0, 6-1 over a bewildered Maria Sharapova in the final) and Roger Federer, coming off his most recent major title, treating us to a throwback performance, surviving a tough semifinal against Juan Martin del Potro, only to lose to a resurgent Andy Murray (whom he had beaten for that Wimbledon title a few weeks earlier). Murray, with the weight of a nation on his shoulders, showed resolve in attacking Federer, contrary to his normal style, and used this newfound confidence to claim his first Grand Slam at Flushing Meadows a few weeks later.

Sadly missing from that tournament was Rafael Nadal, who was unable to defend his gold medal from 2008 due to the knee issues that have bothered him throughout his career. The summer Olympics are in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and Tokyo in 2020. Perhaps one of those will host it on clay, but I think the opportunity for seeing it on the courts of Roland Garros is reason enough to root for Paris in 2024, even if Rafa will have long since retired by then. That, combined with the fact that 2024 will be the one-hundredth anniversary of the last time they hosted the Games, combined with about a kajillion failed bids, should give them the edge…maybe?

Enjoy the (winter) Olympics and stay warm!