By Paul Fein
What is more treasured: a Grand Slam title or an Olympic gold medal? When tennis returned to the Olympic Games as a medal sport in 1988 after a 64-year hiatus, posing this question was unimaginable.
Cynics and critics, including the esteemed writer-broadcaster Bud Collins, then contended tennis didn’t need the Olympics and the Olympics didn’t need tennis. In 1994, Cliff Drysdale, a TV commentator and former US singles finalist, told Tennis magazine, “Those who advocate Olympic tennis believe it’s an idea whose time has come. In fact, it’s an idea whose time has passed.”
They couldn’t be more wrong.
In a 1982 World Tennis magazine editorial, International Tennis Federation Secretary David Gray provided four compelling reasons for readmitting tennis: “The universality of the sport, the growth of participation and public interest, our history (Baron de Coubertin had regarded us as suitable for the first modern Olympics in 1896), and the simplicity of our requirements.”
There will always be skeptics and bitter-enders. As recently as 2004, all-time great Rod Laver told Tennis magazine, “I just think tennis doesn’t lend itself to being an Olympic sport. To me, the Olympics is track and field.” But the overwhelming support and enthusiasm of players, fans, sponsors and media for tennis in the Olympic Games is now a happy fact of life, not a subject for debate.
John McEnroe, the three-time Wimbledon champion in the 1980s now a leading TV analyst, recalled, “When Andre Agassi won the gold medal in 1996 and stood oh so proud with that USA on his back, other players started thinking, ‘Maybe it’s a good thing if we play this, maybe pros in the Olympics makes sense.’ In the beginning more than 50 percent of the top [men] players didn’t play. After Andre won it, more and more of the top players played each subsequent Olympics.”
The fields have grown steadily stronger since 1988 and now equal those at Grand Slam events. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the singles competitions featured 17 of the top 20 men, and 18 of the top 20 women, with all of the top five men in attendance. The only top 20 women missing at the London Games were Kaia Kanepi and Andrea Petkovic, both injured, and Marion Bartoli because of her refusal to accept any coach other than her father. All of the top 10 men, except injured Rafael Nadal, competed. Nadal, the 2008 singles gold medalist, called his withdrawal “one of the saddest days of my career.”
When Russian veteran Elena Dementieva captured the singles gold medal at Beijing, she stressed it meant much more to her than winning a major title would have. The tears of joy Roger Federer shed after he and Swiss compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka took the doubles gold medal in Beijing were so poignant that IOC President Jacques Rogge said it was one moment he would never forget. Grabbing his 17th major title at Wimbledon gratified The Mighty Fed and silenced his critics, but he failed for the fourth straight Olympics to win a singles gold medal, the only prestigious prize that has eluded him.
Although Federer now owns a singles silver medal, he remains in the club of “greatest players never to win a singles gold medal,” which includes Pete Sampras, Martina Navratilova, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Novak Djokovic, Martina Hingis, and Maria Sharapova. When Djokovic was asked early in the London Games what a gold medal would mean to him, he replied, “It would be probably right up there with all the Grand Slams that I won because I’m playing here for my country.” Like Federer, the Serb was thwarted by surprise gold medalist Andy Murray.
Although a gold medal won this century keeps increasing in value, it’s fair to say not all Grand Slam tournaments are valued equally. While some players may cherish a Wimbledon title more than an Olympics gold, far fewer would take an Australian title over a gold medal. Opinions vary about the French and US Opens. Specifically, Europeans consider Paris more prestigious than Flushing Meadows, but Americans would disagree. What isn’t debatable is that gold medals possess such great value partly because they are rare—16 major titles are contested for every Olympics. Top 50 players may get three chances in their careers, if they’re healthy and are selected.
“The Olympics is a tremendous address for tennis, and contributed greatly to the surge of importance and respect for the sport in countries like China and Russia,” points out respected tennis and Olympic Games analyst Mary Carillo. “I remember [1950s champion] Tony Trabert—an old-school man in so many ways—who said of the inclusion of tennis in the Olympics, ‘I think it’s a great thing. I’d have loved to play for my country in the Olympics. Who wouldn’t?’”
National pride also factors heavily in the equation for many players, tennis associations, fervent media and patriotic fans. When No. 133-ranked Jie Zheng stunned everyone by making the 2008 Wimbledon semifinals, the headline in a Chinese newspaper read: “Wimbledon semifinal greatly enhances your Olympics preparation.” Put differently, the message was: Nice going, Jie Zheng, but what really matters is the Beijing Games and we expect you to excel there.
The WTA and ATP Tours have some catching up and explaining to do. The WTA Tour awards only an insulting and unfair 685 and 470 ranking points to gold and silver medalists, respectively, compared to 2,000 and 1,400 ranking points for the champion and finalist, respectively, at Grand Slam events. The ATP Tour isn’t much better, awarding 750 points for the gold, but even less, 450 points, for the silver.
“Toronto [Rogers Cup] is worth more points [1,000 for the winner] than the Olympics. That’s what’s bizarre,” rightly criticized McEnroe. “I don’t know why the Olympics aren’t as important now, in terms of ranking points, as a major. If you only play the Olympics once every four years, how in the world is it less important than 14 other tournaments—not just the four majors, but also 10 other tournaments?”
After falling to Federer in the Wimbledon final and disappointing British fans again, world No. 4 Murray said he was “desperate” to win an Olympic gold medal at the All England Club. “I think a gold medal is the pinnacle of every sport. Novak Djokovic won a bronze medal at the last Olympics and was in tears,” asserted Murray. More relaxed, confident and aggressive than ever in big matches, Murray reached that pinnacle by edging Djokovic 7-5, 7-5 in the semis and outclassing favored Federer 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 for the gold medal.
When American twins Bob and Mike Bryan, winners of 12 major doubles titles, defeated Frenchmen Michael Llodra and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to capture the doubles gold medal and complete a career Golden Grand Slam, Bob said, “This is the biggest win of our career right here. It’s unbelievable.”
Before the London Games, Serena Williams said the gold medal she won playing doubles with her sister Venus at the Sydney Olympics is “my favorite thing I have” and the only award she shows off to friends. After trouncing Sharapova 6-0, 6-1 for the gold, ecstatic Serena jumped several times in joy, did a little dance and gushed, “Winning Wimbledon is the best feeling in the world. Now that I won the gold medal, I didn’t think it could get better than winning Wimbledon.”
That the premier women from Steffi Graf in 1988 to Serena in 2012 have won the gold medal “shows you the importance of tennis to the Olympics and the players,” pointed out topnotch NBC analyst and former Australian doubles standout Rennae Stubbs. “Tennis is becoming more and more important every single Olympic Games.” Adds Carillo: “Staging the Olympics here [at Wimbledon], the greatest venue in tennis, has added so much more luster.”
How important is a tennis gold medal?
Andre Agassi, who boasts a career Grand Slam and a gold medal at the Atlanta Games, summed it up best: “To win a Grand Slam [title] is the greatest thing in the sport, but to win an Olympics is the biggest thing you can do in all sports.”
– Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of theSpringfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player inNew England. –