Tennis may be an original Olympic sport — included when the modern Games debuted in 1896 — but medals can’t compete with Grand Slams.
Wimbledon, Roland Garros, the Australian and U.S. Opens: There’s the glory.
Prospecting for gold is nice. Trophy silverware shines more brightly, however, for the racquet gang. Their professional lives revolve around the annual quartet of majors, even as they schlep to tournaments from week to week.
So, while not quite as Games averse as their marquee golf contemporaries, elite tennis players aren’t entirely enthralled by the whole Olympics hoopla. Certainly not since the novelty of their sport’s full medal jacket return to the spectacle in 1988 — it had been dropped after 1924 — tapered off. And even less so with the decision not to incorporate Games results into the ATP and WTA world rankings, as had been the case from 2004 through 2012.
Thus far, nine players ranked in the top 25 have announced they won’t be flying down to Rio. They include Canada’s Milos Raonic, Wimbledon semifinalist Tomas Berdych, endlessly petulant Nick Kyrgios (claiming the Australian Olympic Committee has treated him unfairly) and compatriot Bernard Tomic, rising Austrian sensation Dominic Thiem, France’s Richard Gasquet (back injury), Spain’s Feliciano Lopez (who cited scheduling issues), German wunderkind teen Alexander Zverev (citing illness) and Romania’s Simona Halep (the Rogers Cup champion).
Five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova wants to go but can’t; her appeal of a two-year drug ban has been postponed until September.
The London Games, staged on Wimbledon’s courts, retained a Grand Slam aura. But the tennis complex in Rio commands no such prestige. Anxiety over the Zika virus provides some cover for athletes, such as Raonic, who’ve bailed on these Olympics. But it was almost refreshing when Sam Querrey — who shockingly bounced world No. 1 Novak Djokovic at the All England Club a few weeks ago — cut to the honest quick in recent comments. “I don’t necessarily think it maybe should be an Olympic sport,” the American observed. “Some sports in the Olympics — that and golf — you know, I feel like maybe shouldn’t be there. It just wasn’t a priority of mine at all.’’
He’s taken a pass. “We have four . . . Grand Slams. Those kind of take precedent. Those are the main focus for us.’’
When Martina Navratilova opted out of Seoul, she declared: “I don’t think of tennis as a real Olympic sport.’’
Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe also skipped Seoul, though the latter has since admitted that sidestepping the Olympics is one of his biggest regrets.
The U.S. Open at Flushing Meadows, starting Aug. 29, looms large for most top-tier players as the final major of the season. Rio is a long way to go with little upside to the excursion. Some players look upon the Olympics as on par with all-star games — not worth the effort or the potential for injury. Further, because tennis is a non-jingo endeavour on tour — athletes don’t represent nations even when identified by the country on their passport — the players don’t easily rise to the bait of national pride.
Of course, there are those who are quite stirred by the spectacle of the biggest show on Earth. Andre Agassi, who won gold in Atlanta in 1996, said: “To win a Grand Slam is the greatest thing in the sport, but to win an Olympics is the biggest thing you can do in all sports.’’
Rafael Nadal will be Spain’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremonies unless his bum wrist prevents participation. Roger Federer was keen but withdrew a few days ago, simultaneously revealing he’s shutting it down for the rest of the season to rehabilitate the knee that required surgery earlier this year and was re-aggravated in his Wimbledon semifinal loss to Raonic: “I’m extremely disappointed to announce that I will not be able to represent Switzerland at the Olympic Games in Rio and I will also miss the remainder of the season.”
Federer, a gold medallist in doubles with countryman Stan Wawrinka, has never won the Olympics singles title. An epic final against Andy Murray four years ago resulted in silver. Murray, fresh off his Wimbledon triumph, will seek to defend his title in Rio. “Tennis most certainly belongs in the Olympic Games,” the Scotsman insists. “After I lost early in the Beijing Olympics eight years ago, I knew how much it hurt. The tennis during the London Games at Wimbledon was one of the best weeks of my life and the crowd was something I will always remember.’’
Djokovic shares Murray’s view on the Games, stating categorically earlier this year it would be “unthinkable” for him not to go. In Toronto for the Rogers Cup (which he won) this past week, Djokovic doubled down on that commitment as he aims for a reset on the splendid season that was so rudely interrupted by early elimination at Wimbledon. As an Olympian, Djokovic has only one bronze medal, won in Beijing, where he was Serbia’s flag-bearer. Four years ago, he lost the bronze-medal match. In Rio he’s also scheduled to contest doubles.
Despite the Olympic non-interest of Querrey and fellow American John Isner, No. 16 in the world, the U.S. is sending a formidable 12-pack team led by the Williams sisters. Serena and Venus, who both began their Olympic careers in Sydney and were golden in London in singles (Serena) and doubles. In fact, they’re on the hunt for their fourth doubles gold. Serena has expressed “sadness” over athletes who’ve decided Rio isn’t worth the Zika virus risk. “It’s probably one thing I have that I love the most,” she said of her Olympic medals. “It is really one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had.”
Eugene Bouchard isn’t letting Zika fears stand in the way of making her Olympic debut. “I had concerns about going, of course, because of Zika and my health and summer in general,” she said on the eve of the Rogers Cup in Montreal. “I spent a lot of time making this decision, but in the end I know that I really want to go.’’
The 22-year-old will be joined by Vasek Pospisil, Daniel Nestor and Gabriela Dabrowski.
Other notables confirmed: Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber, Agnieszka Radwanska, Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Rogers Cup finalist Kei Nishikori.
Plus seven Russians — albeit not Sharapova — who’ve passed the International Tennis Federation sniff test.