Present stars covet the Olympic tennis gold; women have viewed the Games with greater admiration
Tennis has shared a tenuous bond with the Olympics, a relationship best captured by the question: Is a gold medal worth as much as a Grand Slam crown?
Till reasonably recently, the answer — as it related to the men’s game at least — was obvious. Stefan Edberg was the only marquee name in Seoul in 1988, when tennis was reintroduced as a medal sport.
Miroslav Mecir, who took gold to Edberg’s bronze, was a delightfully soft-handed player who made two major finals; but he had nothing on Boris Becker, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Mats Wilander, none of whom bothered to turn up.
The field in Barcelona was stronger, the six best players confirming their participation, but just three of the top ten entered the singles draw in the subsequent edition, in Atlanta in 1996.
Just where the Olympics figured in the ambitions of the top players can be known from the fact that Pete Sampras, the winner of 14 Grand Slam titles between 1990 and 2002, participated just once —in 1992, when he had yet to attain his peak. Clearly, the pinnacle of all sport wasn’t the pinnacle of tennis.
The women, however, have viewed the Olympics with greater admiration. Perhaps Steffi Graf’s 1988 triumph, which became memorable in retrospect because it was part of the Golden Grand Slam, set the tone.
But things have changed appreciably among the men. ost current players revere the Olympics. They don’t see it as a “pleasant distraction” or an “unnecessary hassle”, as one report during the 1996 Games described it; a gold medal is now coveted.
Novak Djokovic listed it along with the Grand Slams in his goals for 2012. Andy Murray, asked before his run to the final at the All England Club if he’d rather win Wimbledon or the Olympics singles, said he’d gladly take either.
For a man desperate to break through in the majors, it was a significant statement —might a gold medal offset the disappointment of not winning a Slam, like it did with Elena Dementieva?
The reasons for the change in perception aren’t clear. The awarding of ranking points, which began in Sydney in 2000, might have helped, but it couldn’t have swung the matter.
For, the Olympics champion earns 750 points, fewer than if he were to win a Masters 1000 tournament (1000 points), a World Tour Finals (1500 points), or a Grand Slam (2000 points).
Perhaps the victories of Andre Agassi (1996) and Rafael Nadal (2008), both genuinely great, made the Olympics ‘legit’. A thing grows in value after all only when people decide it’s valuable.
Murray said he realised how much it meant when he saw Roger Federer and Djokovic overcome by emotions in Beijing — a doubles gold and a singles bronze, neither seemingly as precious as a singles gold, had moved these very successful men.
But perhaps it’s just that the players have changed — it’s a generation that has grown up with tennis in the Olympics. Marc Rosset’s gold in 1992 was big in Switzerland and made an impression on Federer; the same Olympics, because it was near home in Barcelona, immersed Nadal in its importance.
It’s also a generation that’s more aware of its place in tennis and tennis’ place in world sport.
Tennis players want to experience the Olympics; loners in a lonely sport, they want to feel part of something that’s bigger than them.
That it will be played at Wimbledon, the game’s spiritual home, has made it even more special. Best-of-three-set matches on grass (except for the final which is best of five) can, like Andy Roddick said, be “a crapshoot”, but the top players will fancy their chances of being in medal contention.
The stories write themselves: Federer and a unique Wimbledon-Olympics double; a teary-eyed Murray and British redemption; Djokovic, Nadal and a reassertion of the new world order; a Mecir, a Rosset, a Massu and an improbable coup.
Tennis at the Olympics: the original question mightn't still have a clear answer, but it doesn't seem to matter any more.