Rafael Nadal will be the man to beat

AIMING FOR GOLD: Roger Federer will be keen to add the Olympic gold to his glittering collection and Rafael Nadal stands in his way as usual.

AIMING FOR GOLD: Roger Federer will be keen to add the Olympic gold to his glittering collection and Rafael Nadal stands in his way as usual.   | Photo Credit: — Photo: AFP

Nandita Sridhar

Tennis stars have shown more interest this time

At the time of a historic change of guard in men’s tennis, the sport readies itself for the quadrennial Olympics. In a welcome defiance of the norm, tennis stars have shown surprising interest in Beijing this year.

After its reintroduction as a medal sport, tennis in the Olympics has progressed from craving for recognition, calling for a perceived sacrifice of self for a superior cause, to a prize worth fighting for.

The paradox of the biggest multi-sport event in the world not evoking proportionate feelings will take a few more editions and more prestigious winners to completely change, but the signs point towards that direction.

Players respond to the Games based on their notions of national identity and sport’s role in shaping it. The Russians, Serbs and the rest of Eastern Europe see it as a challenge and a dream.

A dream

“The Olympics comes around only once every four years, and the U.S. Open is there every single year. It has been a dream of mine ever since I was a little girl,” said Russian Maria Sharapova on what the Olympics meant to her.

Primarily, tennis at the Olympics allows the element of intrigue.

The prospect of watching some of the game’s biggest stars free from the routine interwoven battles is, if nothing more, a new viewing experience. The dynamic here changes.

A potential Federer-Nadal clash in the Olympics brings forth a different response to the compelling rivalry. Will stars of the sport bring forth their best games against each other ahead of the U.S. Open? Is a gold medal worthy enough of the extra stretch at crunch time?

Federer, whose loss to Tomas Berdych in Athens reportedly shattered him, has conveyed a healthy desperation in seeking the Olympic gold. Nadal appears less infatuated. The Spaniard, while conceding to diplomacy in showing interest in the Olympics, has made it clear that Grand Slams are unmatched.

The attractions

Pull-outs have depleted the field a lot less than expected. The stars perceive the Olympics as something more than a tennis tournament.

The chance to represent their countries and the experience of staying in the Olympic village, sharing space and responsibilities with other sportspersons, are attractions, but result in lower levels of intensity than in a Slam.

The Olympics finds itself in the middle of an already cramped hard court season and motivation levels could well determine the progress of the seeds.

Serb World No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, while speaking of players’ expectations, said: “It will be a fiercely competitive field, just as strong as a Grand Slam event. I don’t want to put myself under any pressure and be unrealistic, meaning that winning any medal would be a fantastic achievement.”

In the men’s field, despite Federer’s greater desire for a gold medal, Nadal will go in as the favourite after the spectacular run that began during the clay court season.

No charity is expected from the women’s favourites, as one saw from Venus Williams and Justine Henin who claimed gold when at the peak of their prowess.

Sania needs a miracle

The field this time is one of the strongest, which means Sania Mirza will need a miracle and the most fortuitous of draws to exceed expectations.

There appears a greater chance of surprises in the men’s draw. In Athens 2004, Chile’s Nicolas Massu showed what damage a floater could do by clinching the gold.

In the unique atmosphere of the Games, stars look to enjoy while the rest see an opportunity.

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