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Tennis

50 parting shots on Olympic tennis

WIMBLEDON, England -- The Olympic tennis event packed a mean punch, with Andy Murray breaking through on Wimbledon's hallowed grounds to win gold. Here are 50 thoughts from covering the event at the All England Club.

• Murray (GBR) scored the biggest win of his career, rising to an Olympic challenge and rolling past Roger Federer (SUI) 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 in the gold-medal match. I would contend this means every bit as much as a Wimbledon title for Murray. There's always a next year for that. The Olympics on your home turf? That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

• Serena Williams (USA) simply dominated the women's singles draw. So much so that you almost feel as though a gold medal wasn't sufficient. Or that she was playing an altogether different game from the rest of the field. In her final three matches, she played the last three WTA No. 1 players. Total games surrendered in those six sets? Seven. Just the latest chapter in a remarkable story.

• Maria Sharapova (RUS) took silver in women's singles. And you hope the medal is her take-away, not the absence of resistance she offered in the last match.

• Not unlike Sharapova, Federer's joy in winning silver has to be tempered by his flat play in the final. Still, the big-picture look is he has an Olympic singles medal.

• Victoria Azarenka (BLR) collected bronze, defeating Maria Kirilenko (RUS) for the medal. How's this for WTA parity: The three women's medalists are the three Grand Slam winners from 2012.

• In winning bronze by beating Novak Djokovic (SRB) two days after a devastating defeat to Federer, Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) threatens to become a Big Five member.

• Like Serena, the doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan (USA) completed the career golden Slam (winning all four majors and the Olympics) with a gold medal. Not that it's a contest, but the brothers may have been the most emotional of all the winners. Bob: "We've won the Grand Slams. It's great. But the Olympics are something special. There's no feeling to describe what it's like when that flag is going up and the national anthem is playing. It transcends any tennis event, you know?"

• Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Michael Llodra (FRA) won silver. Their countrymen Richard Gasquet and Julien Benneteau finished third.

• Venus and Serena Williams won doubles gold for the third time. Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka (CZE) won the silver and Kirilenko and Nadia Petrova (RUS) the bronze.

• Azarenka and Max Mirnyi (BLR) put a bit of a damper on Murray's triumphant Sunday, edging the Scot and Laura Robson 2-6, 6-3, 10-8 to win the mixed doubles gold medal.

• Neil Stubley, who is becoming the head groundsman at the All England Club, was the Danny Boyle of the tennis event, the mastermind whose behind-the-scenes work made it all possible. After a few gripes about a slippery first day, the courts held their own. I asked Stubley to make like a gymnastics judge and rate his performance. When he said "nine," he was being modest. Congrats, as well, to the man he replaces, Eddie Seaward. Talk about going out on top (and on topsoil).

• What do we make of this? All of the American winners were 30 and over.

• Milos Raonic (CAN) and Del Potro should be standing tall(er) after their performances in London. Both, of course, lost epic matches in the third set: 25-23 in the case of Raonic, against Tsonga; 19-17 in the case of DelPo, against Federer. But both went places they'd never been before and should emerge stronger for it.

• Now that we've dispensed with the requisite praise, it's time we re-examined the policy of how we play out the decisive set. This has gotten silly. Some of these matches become freak shows. The winners are beaten up physically. The schedule clogs. With these interminable matches looming as a possibility, it discourages players from entering doubles and mixed doubles. Maybe at 10-10 we play a tiebreaker? Something. This "marathon match" business has lost its appeal.

More radical, still: Enough with best-of-five sets at the Slams, at least until the final. It's both impractical and tone deaf to the times. The sport has never been more grueling, more likely to cause injury (see: Nadal, Rafael). It's never been more important to accommodate television. (Snicker if you like, but it's naive to assert otherwise.) Why are we doing this to already-tired players? Why are we acting so inhospitable to television? These best-of-three matches were fantastic. Perfect amount of time. They captured fans, but still provided spellbinding drama. Even after the long matches, players could return the following day. Not once did I encounter a fan or player who said, "That was a great match but I feel shortchanged. I wish they had played an additional 90 minutes."

• After both men's semis, the combatants stopped at the net and didn't just shake hands, but hugged it out. And you got the feeling this was an absolutely genuine show of authentic affection and respect. It's the hoariest of clichés but, yes friends, it's a golden age in so many ways.

• One of the more bizarre moments: In the third round, David Ferrer (ESP) played Kei Nishikori (JPN), a match that went into darkness. With Ferrer serving at 4-5, the match moved under the lights of Centre Court. There was the delay to close the roof. Fans scrambled to get a seat near the court. Ferrer gets broken. One game. Match over.

• Mary Joe Fernandez is truly lousy at playing the Hey-Everybody-Look-At-Me! game, a favorite subsport among many in tennis. She doesn't make outrageous statements or pronouncements. As a broadcaster, she has no compendium of wacky catchphrases or nicknames. She doesn't dress outrageously or try to boost her profile by appearing on other television shows. She is a baseliner. Solid, conservative, methodical. So it's easy to overlook her body of work.

As captain of the U.S. women's team, she was helming a ship that had the potential for disaster. The U.S. wasn't the only country that had more players than roster spots, but MJF also had issues or race, nationality, ethnicity, commitment and funding to negotiate. Agents angled behind the scenes. Tennis' usual snarl of conflicts were in full effect. Players said one thing publicly and another privately. There was the possibility that Venus -- former gold medalist, five-time Wimbledon singles champ -- wouldn't qualify based on ranking. What then? Two potential players weren't born in the U.S., which -- foolish as it may seem to some of us -- rankled some of the more hidebound. There was history, too. In 2000, the USTA ended up in the court for Arbitration in Sport after Billie Jean King mishandled Lisa Raymond's selection.

MJF simply maneuvered honestly and capably, keeping a low profile throughout. The public never realized just how fraught the situation was at times. She caught a few breaks. Venus made the rankings cut-off. Venus and Serena were still alive in both singles and doubles at the deadline, so they begged off playing the mixed event. Serena played the best tennis of her life. Along with her team, the captain thrived. You could consider it karma.

• Who else is worried that Caroline Wozniacki (DEN) is the blonde version of Ana Ivanovic (SER)? A thoroughly pleasant figure, who was expelled from the castle and hangs around for years, scoring a good win every now and then, but never getting back to the most elite level.

• TV personality Chelsea Handler learned about tennis players' superstitions the hard way. She came early in the tournament as a guest of Sharapova's. As Sharapova kept winning, there were requests for Handler to return. Four matches later, she was still in the box.

• Discuss: This event did little to help the heft of the WTA. Serena obliterated the three most recent No. 1 ranked players. Petra Kvitova (CZE), the 2011 Wimbledon champ, appears to be a work in regress. Aga Radwanska (POL) lost early. So did Sam Stosur (AUS) and Li Na (CHN). Kim Clijsters (BEL), a four-time Grand Slam winner, still has plenty of game but will be retired in just over a month. We can all accessorize with rose-colored glasses and talk about the virtues of parity and the "international cast" and the other talking points the marketing side has sent over. But here's the distillation: As has been the case for years, when Serena is on her game, everyone else is playing for the runner-up trophy. And, sadly, the one player (Sharapova, obviously) who could be a legitimate challenger has not warmed to the rivalry.

• When Ryan Harrison (USA) threw a series of tantrums during his first-round loss, the Republic of Tennis did to him what he did to his rackets. That is, it cracked him with ferocity. One example among many, ESPN's Chris Fowler on Twitter: "Didn't see match, just the lowlights. I like him, But Ryan Harrison cannot have tantrum/racquet smash at Wimbledon, playing for country." To his credit, with Justin Gimelstob prodding him, Harrison apologized profusely on Bravo the next day.

This was an unfortunate episode all around, but the greater cause of concern is the state of his game. There's so much material here: power, athleticism, a sense of tactics, a real competitive jones -- in contrast to other prospects before him who have seemed content simply to live the charmed life. There's marketability. (Notice that Nike passes on John Isner but committed big money to Harrison.) But for whatever reason, the results haven't come. He's 20 now, which is still young, but has moved him out of the "prospect" category. While he's encroaching on the top 50, well, check out these results.

The big win or the breakthrough event remains elusive. After this disappointment and public relations debacle, it will be interesting to see how he acquits himself at the U.S. Open. And whether he heeds his vow to control his temper.

• Brazil will host the 2016 Games. There was only one Brazilian (Thomaz Bellucci) in the men's singles draw and none in the women's. A similar note: Chile claimed gold in the Athens singles (Nicolas Massu) and doubles (Massu and Fernando Gonzalez) and won a silver singles medal (Gonzo) in Beijing. There were no Chileans in the entire tournament this year.

• We all get the sponsorship game, but the IOC sure plays tough. Pimm's was no Olympic sponsor. Hence a Pimm's Cup was sold as a "No. 1 fruit cup." (I wondered how many people thought they were ordering some melon slices and pineapple and stumbled away.) Likewise, Rolex is not an Olympic sponsor, hence, the clocks at the All England Club were shrouded with tarp.

• Lots of comments on the Bravo television coverage. Having been part of the team, I am obviously not in much position to join the discussion with any objectivity. (Thanks to all who wrote both to compliment and critique. Who knew the pattern of a tie could generate such strong opinions?) It was great fun for me. And I will say that working with the inimitable Pat O'Brien was a truly unforgettable experience.

• You know what took a hit this tournament? The credibility of the "time of match" stat. When players operate at a rushed pace, their matches are short. When they play at a leisurely, ball-bounce-a-riffic pace -- and there are breaks for fireworks -- the matches go longer.

• Spare a thought for Andreas Seppi, Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani (ITA) et al. Though we're not sure how this jibes with austerity, an Italian's winning gold would have gotten a national bonus of almost $200,000.

• Spare another thought for Nadal. It wasn't quite the same without the him.

• After players left the court, they went immediately to a "mixed zone" for interviews. It's a strange exercise, almost like speed dating. I had been warned by seasoned Olympic media types that the mixed zone is a demeaning blow-off session, one that recalls paparazzi yelling at celebrity criminals as they leave the courtroom. ("Mr. Lochte, is there anything you want to say to the victims!") At the tennis event? It was ideal. Win or lose, the players were extraordinarily accommodating and cool about stopping to talk. I watched Venus stop at every slot. I saw Tomas Berdych (CZE) spend 20 minutes talking into TV cameras and microphones after a defeat.

Personal account: I casually spoke with Feliciano Lopez (ESP) about his late addition after Nadal's unfortunate withdrawal. He was great so I asked if he would mind repeating his thoughts, this time with the NBC television camera rolling. "No problem." So we had the same conversation again. Maybe it was the Olympic spirit, a sense by the players that it was particularly important to be seen favorably. But to a person, everyone was on their best behavior.

• Really enjoyed meeting Malek Jaziri of Tunisia, the only player from an Arab country in the men's draw. You want to root for a random player? Consider this.

• Radwanska, a Wimbledon finalist, carries the flag for Poland (good). She then loses early in singles, doubles and mixed (not good).

• Spare a thought for the Rogers Cup (i.e. the Canadian Open), as its player field was a casualty of all this Olympic success. By late last week, Ferrer, Federer and Nadal had each pulled out.

• There's often something pointless to griping about the Olympics since it's a one-and-done event. Not as though you can improve the Heathrow transportation routes next time; because there is no next time in London. Still, the ticketing needs to be at least addressed. It was especially lousy at the tennis. This was a hot ticket and yet, thanks to the unused corporate blocks, there were huge patches of empty seats. What a shame to see even Federer and Murray take Centre Court to less than a capacity crowd knowing how many fans would happily have paid to fill the seats.

I like the suggestion from Don of London, who wrote: "More seats could be filled by using a simple Internet confirmation system. Got a ticket? You need to confirm online that you will show up, no later than the day before. Unconfirmed tickets become invalid and get resold at the gate. Half the money goes to charity, half goes to increase prize money. Win-win-win."

• Lot of comments about the attire and uniforms. Check out some photos and a real expert's take.

• While we're here, the All England Club should be toasted for its hospitality. Playing the tennis at Wimbledon was an obvious choice once London was awarded the Games, but what exactly did the club have to gain from this? Unclear. It's not as though the AELTC needs the exposure. Its courts get used for an additional four weeks, depriving members of play. Same for the locker rooms. The Wimbledon touches and corporate partnerships get diluted. Still, the members were sports and the tennis benefited as a result.

• Jurgen Melzer (AUT) had an interesting way to prepare for the Olympics. After Wimbledon, he flew to Las Vegas for a 10-day training camp. On hard courts.

• Dear Roger Federer: Those Federer Olympic pins? Love them. And don't listen to the haters, asserting that it's another indication of arrogance. (Win 17 majors, you're entitled to signature lines of accessories.) But please do this: Instead of 60, make thousands of them, sell them and give the proceeds to your foundation or another cause. I tweeted a photo of the pin and must have had 50 "Where can I get this?/I want one!" responses.

• In the Muggsy Bogues-Manute Bol match, Isner (USA) beat Olivier Rochus (BEL). To use a voguish word of these Games, you have to love the biodiversity of this sport.

• We've said it before: There's something distasteful about putting athletes to pasture. Let them retire when they're ready. Yet at the same time, it's fair game to speculate how much longer they'll endure. When Andy Roddick loses a match on grass 6-2, 6-1 (as he did to Djokovic), you wonder what's going through his head.

• The 2002 Wimbledon champion, Lleyton Hewitt (AUS), needed a wild card to get into the main draw. He made the most of it, battling -- as he is wont to do -- into the third round and taking a set off Djokovic.

• Can someone explain why Shamil Tarpischev, longtime Russian tennis administrator, was chosen to present the gold medal in women's singles? Sort of awkward, given the context of the final, a Russian getting so soundly defeated. Nothing against the guy, but why not assign him the men's where there was a much smaller chance of conflict? Speaking of Russia, sure is a lot of chatter about this controversial Pete Bodo piece that I encourage you to read.

• Still recovering from the notion of Murray's playing Federer in a high-stakes match at the All England Club ... and then waiting a bit before playing mixed doubles.

• At last year's U.S. Open, Donald Young (USA) appeared to have turned a corner, having beaten Stan Wawrinka, reached the second week and then cracked the top 50. He is now winless since February, in striking distance of the dubious record for most consecutive defeats. For a player without a big serve or big shot to bail him out, he can't afford the mental lapses that still pock his matches.

• Lopez made the most of the opportunity, playing deep into the tournament in singles and doubles. There's something to be said limiting a country to four players. But what a shame it would have been had Lopez -- a top player, especially on grass -- been deprived a chance.

• The Indian doubles teams of Mahesh Bhupathi/Rohan Bopanna and Leander Paes/Vishnu Vardhan both lost early. Wow, was that a lot of politicking and drama for next to nothing.

• Speaking of wacky, how does the German federation not lobby for Tommy Haas -- former top five player, Wimbledon semifinalist; recent beater of Federer -- especially when it knew that Phil Kohlschreiber was less than passionate about the Olympics?

• Tennis truly thrived in the Olympics. But let's be clear: The Olympics benefited from tennis as well. (For starters, note that eight players carried their countries' flags.) Having Federer and Serena and company in the field added to the festivities. Even before the British success, this was a marquee event. The athletes were terrific, hanging out at the Olympic Village, taking in other events when possible and betraying no entitlement. A total win-win.

* See you in Rio.

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