Forty parting thoughts from Rio 2016 Olympic tennis
- Wrapping up a week of tennis at the Rio Olympics, where Monica Puig won Puerto Rico's first Olympic gold medal and Andy Murray won his second Olympic gold.
It should now be a moot point: tennis is better for its inclusion in the Olympic Games; the Olympic Games are better for the inclusion of tennis. In attempting to quiet the crowd this weekend, the chair umpire said pleadingly, “Obrigado. Muchas gracias. Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, please, this is a tennis event.” True, that.
With that, we wrap up the Rio 2016 tennis competition…
• Andy Murray becomes the first player to defend an Olympic gold singles medal, taking out Juan Martin del Potro tonight. Murray has now won 18 straight matches and, quite suddenly, is at a career pinnacle. That Murray did it all without summoning his best tennis was all the more impressive. As for del Potro, even by winning silver, he was, in many ways, THE story of the men's event. His ranking (No. 141 as I write this) be damned, he is a top contender right now.
• Monica Puig arrived in the most dramatic way. The Puerto Rican had entered 80 WTA tournaments in her career, and had won one—and that was May of 2014. In Rio, she was unstoppable, combining deceptive power (including 54 winners in the final against Angie Kerber) with tremendous poise and competitive resolve. She becomes the first gold medalist in Puerto Rico’s history. She becomes the first Puerto Rican female ever to medal. She becomes an instant star. Great story.
• Elena Vesnina and Ekaterina Makarova took the women’s doubles gold beating Martina Hingis and Timea Bacsinszky in the final. The Russians’ familiarity won the day.
• Bethanie (Chro)Mattek Sands and Jack Sock win gold in mixed doubles, beating Rajeev Ram and Venus Williams 6–7, 6–1, 10–7 in the final. Williams/Ram were up 6–3 in the match tiebreak. Endearing to see win Venus walk away with a medal—especially since her singles and doubles campaigns were so disappointing. Lucie Hradecka and Radek Stepanek took the bronze.
• Say this about Hingis: Good to see her leave with a medal. Ninety days ago, she and her partner were going for their fourth straight major. Then in Rio, she was going to team with Roger Federer—or, worst case scenario, Stan Wawrinka—and play for gold in mixed doubles. And she would team with her quasi-protege Belinda Bencic in the doubles. The mixed never materialized, as Federer and Wawrinka withdrew. Neither did the women’s doubles, as Bencic pulled out. And not only did Hingis and Mirza falter in both Paris and Wimbledon, but they are now splitsville as a team.
• Kei Nishikori took bronze, beating a dead tired Rafael Nadal on Sunday. Nice to see a Japanese player medal in advance of Tokyo 2020.
• The return of Nadal, though, was among the biggest stories of the tournament. Two weeks ago, he didn’t know if he’d play. It wasn’t simply that he played 11 matches in nine days. It was his level of play and engagement. Again, tennis is healthier when he is healthier. Inasmuch as a 14-time Grand Slam champ can be a revelation….
• Petra Kvitova took the bronze in women’s singles, beating Madison Keys in a three-setter. Hopefully this gets Kvitova back on track. She’s too good not to be in the top 10. As for Keys, she has such breezy power—her forehand is the XY equivalent of del Potro—it’s easy to see her spending considerable time in the top 10. And she has to be pleased that she played six matches, three of them three-setters, and her body held up. But losing two straight in the medal round has to sting.
• Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova started the tournament by beating the Williams sisters. The Czechs closed it by winning bronze.
• Rafael Nadal really distinguished himself in the doubles draw. His game (and underrated hands) translate well to ensemble tennis, as does his bottomless appetite for competition. That he was able to win gold for Spain and share a career highlight with his longtime pal Marc Lopez, made this all the more special. This was highly reminiscent of Federer winning with Stan Wawrinka in Beijing. And when his singles career is over, Nadal could very easily transition into a doubles specialist, should he wish.
• Florin Mergea and Horia Tecau took silver. While they are no doubt still replaying their third-set meltdown against Nadal/Lopez, they should relish having earned Romania’s first tennis medal. The All-American, all-forehand team of Stevie Johnson and Jack Sock won bronze, beating Canada and thwarting Daniel Nestor’s bid for medals 16 years apart.
• You can see the case to be made on both sides, but the absence of ranking points at the Olympics sure seems to penalize the players. You schlepp to the Olympics on your dime. You not only play well and beat a litany of opponents, but your success (see: Puig, Monica) generates all sorts of positive publicity for the sport on a global stage. You have been both an excellent representative for the sport and an excellent corporate citizen, so to speak. And it doesn't help your status at all?
• Similar theme: from Maria Sharapova’s doping ban, to the match-fixing rigmarole to Roger Federer’s injuries, it’s not been a banner year for the sport. These Olympics were a much-needed boost. Great week for the sport. And a strong indication that life will go on and compelling figures will emerge after Federer and the Williams sisters, sadly, leave the stage.
• Whether it’s the unique demands of the Olympics, or injuries, or the whims of tennis, you’d be hard-pressed to find an event that was more inhospitable to top seeds. Trivia: name the lone No. 1 seed who did NOT lose in round one? Answer: Serena Williams, who bowed out in the third round.
• That said, the tenor and character of the two big upsets in the singles draw could not have been more different. In Djokovic, he was outright beaten by Juan Martin del Potro, who brought his brutish forehand to bear and announced his return. In the case of Serena, you don’t want to diminish Svitolina’s career win, but the favorite was so physically compromised, that the opponent didn’t have to do much. Serena likely gets another crack at Svitolina—and vice versa—this week in Cincinnati, so that can help us assess the Rio result.
• Sounds crazy to suggest this, given that barely a month ago he was going for the Grand Slam. But the U.S. Open suddenly takes on a lot of significance for Novak Djokovic. He’s still No. 1 and still the man to beat. Whether it’s an undisclosed injury, mental fatigue, an off-court disruption or simply a drop in the level of play (this can happen even to the best), his aura isn't what it was in June.
• I would hold off on condemning any athlete that makes a reasoned, personal scheduling decision. But you do wonder how many of the tennis absentees saw, say, Caroline Wozniacki’s smile at the Opening Ceremony, or Nadal’s unadulterated elation after winning doubles matches, or Monica Puig tearfully kissing the court and say, “Damn, I wish I were there.”
• Can anyone else recall a tournament that left so many players leaking tears?
• These games really emphasized tennis’ place in the global sportscape. There was no prize money, but if players like Novak Djokovic and Serena had a dollar for every selfie request they fielded from other athletes, it would have made for a fat payday. By all accounts, tennis’ stars were uncommonly gracious.
• It's the rare player who loses in the first round and still walks away pleased. But for a number of competitors—Darian King of Barbados, to pick a name—simply competing was a career thrill. Again, for players of all levels, this experience is so different from the vibe and rhythms and flavor of a conventional tournament.
• Down match point in their women’s double semis, Martina Hingis pegged Andrea Hlavackova in the head—unintentionally we should stress. The Swiss team went on to win 5-7, 7-6, 6-2.
• Thumbs down to the players—and their weren’t many—who complained publicly about the courts and conditions. It was an open secret the venue was subpar by tour event standards, the amenities were non-existent, and some of the volunteers (including the statisticians) may not have been up to speed. But this is the Olympics: you don’t come for the creature comforts. And the optics of tennis players griping that the facilities that don’t measure up to those in Indian Wells or Monte Carlo—i.e. the dozens of events in Cities of the World that offer millions in prize money—is no bueno. (As opposed to Maria “Yes” Bueno.)
• This event is still another vote for best-of-three tennis. Del Potro-Nadal was spectacular stuff. But three sets—and three hours—were plenty, thanks.
• Watching the frosty reception accorded the Russian swimmer, Yulia Efimova—who recently tested positive for meldonium—a few of you asked about Maria Sharapova. I would caution against drawing too many parallels. Sharapova will have her hearing. She’ll serve her time, which may or may not be reduced. And then should be welcomed back.
• Here’s an issue to follow: will Juan Martin del Potro get a U.S. Open wild card? Per the ATP, his protected ranking expires Aug. 22 (and bear in mind that he received no rankings points for his Olympics success.) Do not envy the USTA here. In a year when you need all the stars you can get, either you deprive a spot to a bold-faced name who is not only a former champ but is coming off an electric win over Novak Djokovic…. or you are depriving a spot—and $40,000 payday—to one of the young homegrown players you’re supposed to be nurturing.
• My solution: what if a young American player were to come forward and say this: “I’m declining my wild card, for a chance to qualify. I haven’t earned my spot among the top players quite yet. True, I could use the money and ranking points; but know what I could also use? The matches and the challenge and the struggle. Plus, this way Juan Martin can play in the main draw where he deserves to be. And one day, I trust, someone will pay back this gesture.” Like Tim Smyczek at the 2015 Australian Open, this display of sportsmanship would engender worldwide good will. It will establish you as a good guy. You’ll win over a legion of sponsors. And the tennis world will be in arrears.
• Sadly it got less attention than the strangeness surrounding Benoit Paire (redundant?), who was kicked off the French team after his loss, which sounded a bit like issuing a school suspension the day after graduation. But credit France’s Gael Monfils for his increasingly measured play. He squandered three match points against Kei Nishikori in their quarterfinal match, but had played strategically to that point, this after beating Marin Cilic in three sets the previous day. All in all, a strong summer for Le Monf.
• Dusan Vemic was in Rio helping out the Serbian team. Don't be surprised if, going forward, other players take advantage of his services as an aide-de-camp.
• This event got a nice local bump from Thomaz Bellucci, who reached the round of eight and took a set off of Nadal. Let’s see if he can parlay that into more singles success.
• We all like the Olympics but let’s not overlook the collateral damage. Both in Canada and Cincinnati, the draws were ravaged. In Cincinnati, it’s possible that the draw will feature NONE of the big four—suboptimal for a Masters 100 event. (That Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka were already non-starters didn’t help.) Other storylines like the emergence of 6’11” Reilly Opelka and another title for Nick Kyrgios didn’t sufficiently register.
• Serena Williams took her E-Z Pass on the high road and declined to attribute her loss to injury. But it was painfully clear (pun intended) that her right shoulder was less than 100%, starting with the dramatically reduced mph on her serves. A more mystifying loss that same day: Garbine Muguruza winning just a pair games against Monica Puig.
• Spare a thought for Ricardas Berankis. The first Lithuanian tennis player in the Olympics, Berankis was double-bageled by John Millman in round one. In the previous major, Berankis lost to Marcus Willis, then ranked No. 772. Here’s hoping he turns in a solid U.S. Open.
• Speaking of sparing thoughts, here’s one for Dustin Brown. One of the more likable and pleasing-to-watch players in tennis, he was up a set and 4-4 in his first match against Brazil’s Bellucci. Brown rolled his ankle on an approach shot, ripped tendons, and retired two points later. Apart from being distraught at seeing his Olympics end so unhappily, Brown’s U.S. Open status is now in doubt.
• A few of you asked about the Olympic uniforms and how the Olympic sponsors intersected with the players’ official endorsement contracts. Here’s a sports lawyer weighing in: “Setting aside Opening and Closing Ceremonies, where an athlete must wear the apparel designated by the National Olympic Committee (e.g., Carmelo Anthony wore Polo Ralph Lauren for the Opening Ceremony), competition apparel is treated differently. In the case of U.S. athletes, the U.S. National Governing Body usually determines the competition apparel. Thus, per a deal between USA Track & Field and Nike, all USA Track & Field athletes will compete in Nike apparel, irrespective of any competing apparel endorsement alliance any such Olympic Track & Field team member may have, provided that such athletes can wear the footwear of his/her choice. By contrast, the USTA allows the US tennis players to wear apparel of its choice, but simply with the addition of the U.S. flag on the chest. Thus, Serena can wear NIKE, Stevie Johnson can wear Asics, Jack Sock can wear adidas, etc.
Andy Murray is on court now and, pursuant to the Team GB apparel deal with adidas, which applies to ALL Team GB athletes in all 28 Olympic Games’ sports, Andy, ironically, is wearing adidas apparel for the Games (like the old days); but, he is permitted and is wearing his Under Armour footwear, as that does not fall within the Team GB/adidas deal for these Olympic Games.”
• I’ll add that while there is, of course, no prize money at the Olympics, players are entitled to medal bonuses from their endorsors. It’s safe to assume, for instance, that Nike (happily) cut Nadal some checks for his success.
• Japan, of course, is the site of the 2020 Games and expect Kei Nishikori to figure prominently in the build-up. Nice to see the other Japanese player in the draw, Taro Daniel, win a pair of matches and take a set off of DelPo.
• Someone needs to do a…something. A 30-for-30? A BBC doc. A long-form article…on the first gold medal winner in men’s singles, John Boland. Go down the rabbit hole here. Boland went to Athens in 1896 as a tourist. At the last minute, he was persuaded to enter the draw, even borrowing a pair of shoes. And he won gold in singles and doubles. And, oh yeah, he later became a member of Parliament.
• Speaking of deeper dives, here’s the craziest tennis story—non-Olympic version—you will come across.
• With that, we make like Belichick and…..