The Toss: The murky waters of Olympic qualification
In last week's Toss, SI.com tennis producer C.W. Sesno came on to discuss the recent stability at the top of the WTA, a change from the last four years. Here to stay, or another fad? The readers have spoken, but barely: 56 percent of poll takers think the WTA's top four will remain competitive at the top of the rankings.
This week, tennis blogger Ben Rothenberg joins The Toss to delve into the recent changes the ITF put in place for qualifying for the 2016 Olympics.
Today's Toss: Should there be separate Olympic qualification requirements for tennis players?
Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me this week, Ben. I don't know about you, but the "B", "L", "U" and "E" keys on my laptop are no longer functioning thanks to Madrid, so let's do everyone a favor and not talk about that whole mess. I don't know about you, but I'd rather have Olympic fever than a bad case of the blues.
Before we dive into this debate a bit of background is in order. The ITF recently announced a significant change in the qualification rules for the 2016 Olympics. Currently, players must make themselves available for two Davis Cup or Fed Cup ties in the two years before the Olympics, hence Serena Williams' recent sojourn to Kharkiv, Ukraine in April. But beginning after the London Olympics, players will have to make themselves available to play four times in an Olympic cycle. It's fairly obvious that the impetus for the change is to use Olympic qualifying as a way to get players to commit more regularly to Davis Cup and Fed Cup, competitions that are run by the ITF. The change hasn't gone down well with the top players, who have complained that it forces them to play more in a season that is already long and grueling.
We can talk about whether the changes are good or bad but I thought it would be fun to discuss an even broader issue: Should there even be Olympic qualification rules for tennis players? Why not just do a modified direct acceptance scheme (limiting the number of players from a single country) like they do at the Slams, which is based entirely on ranking?
While the idea of pure rankings-based system has some appeal to me, I'm still in favor of a qualification scheme and I like that it's linked to a player's participation in Davis and Fed Cup I'm generally skeptical of a lot of the ITFs moves, but I found myself nodding my head in agreement when I read this statement from an ITF spokesperson.
"The Olympics is not a regular tournament; it takes more than ranking to participate. In order to compete in the Olympics, every athlete must be in good standing with their national governing body. The mechanism to demonstrate the willingness to represent your country in tennis is by making yourself available to play Davis Cup by BNP Paribas or Fed Cup by BNP Paribas, something we acknowledge that most players have embraced. The reward is playing in the Olympics, which we feel should be a privilege reserved for those players who clearly demonstrate that playing for their countries is a priority."
The vast majority of Olympic sports have a qualification component. Just because you're generally acknowledged to be the best swimmer, soccer team, or gymnast doesn't excuse you from having to earn your spot in a separate competition. In fact, I would argue that tennis has one of the most relaxed qualification systems of all the Olympic sports. You don't even have to win! You just have to "make yourself available," which in some cases means you don't even have to play in the ties.
I know you have some strong feelings on this topic, Ben. Vent accordingly.
Ben Rothenberg: Thank you for having me again, Courtney. I too am glad we get to talk about something besides artificial coloring (not that blue raspberry isn't my favorite flavor of Kool-Aid powder).
I don't understand at all how it makes sense to have a sprawling team competition serve as the requirement for what is a condensed individual tournament. I think the current format of Olympic tennis is really... not special. It offers single elimination singles and doubles draws, which makes it exactly like every other tournament.
The addition of my beloved mixed doubles ups the specialness quotient significantly, but I still think they could do more to make it a unique event. Maybe they could do something like what gymnastics does -- start out with a team competition (perhaps in a World Team Tennis-type accelerated format) and then break down into competitions for the individual disciplines in the second week (and I do think it needs to be a two-week event). Unless that sort of dramatic change happens, I don't see how the team competition of Fed/Davis Cup needed to qualify is relevant to the actual Olympic event.
Tennis players are always playing for their country. Every time Marion Bartoli is in a draw it says "FRA" next to her name. People who bemoan the state of so-called "American tennis" are predominantly talking about how individual American players perform at big tournaments, not the state of the Davis/Fed Cup squads. And just because he doesn't show up to that many Davis Cup ties doesn't mean Andy Murray isn't "playing for" Great Britain at Wimbledon.
I am not completely against there being some sort of pre-qualifying event, however, but Davis/Fed Cup is not the way to go. I think dedicated national "Olympic trials" events would be awesome for Olympic tennis. You want to get the fourth women's singles spot on the U.S. team, Varvara Lepchenko? That's nice, but you're gonna have to go beat Venus Williams on a grass court first at the Trials. Maybe top 20 players could be automatically exempted from the Trials, but otherwise I think it would be tremendous fun to see the free-for-all effect of it. Think of the matches that could happen! Roddick-Harrison! Verdasco-Granollers! Baltacha-Robson! Bondarenko-Bondarenko! Olympic qualification doesn't get real in any sport until you have things get bloody domestically.
Which leads me to the other awesome thing about trials: the fairness. The most problematic part of the ITF's statement: "In order to compete in the Olympics, every athlete must be in good standing with their national governing body."
"Good standing" makes qualification about petty internal politics, especially in a case like Bartoli's.
The wild card playoffs that the USTA and Tennis Australia hold are great and could serve as a model for Olympic trials, but the one flaw they had was being held by invitation. This year, the way the USTA did the wild card competition for the French Open was by basing it on the result of a few open tournaments, which allowed the likes of Brian Baker and Melanie Oudin to prove that they were the best on the big occasions, both players who might not have been invited under the old system. That sort of open system also gave someone like Wayne Odesnik a chance to play for the wild card, which he nearly did. While some might find that lack of gatekeeping scary, I think it's refreshing. I don't think the USTA or USOC should be able to bar a guy from playing at the Olympics just because they think he's a schmuck, and the Davis/Fed Cup qualifying format allows for that.
I recognize that it makes Bartoli look stubborn to a fault when someone like Serena Williams is willing to fly to Kharkiv, Ukraine to play in front of a few dozen people and some grazing livestock, but I don't think she should have to do that either. I also don't think they should have Fed Cup and Davis Cup every year, or at the very least not in Olympic years.
And with that I have run out of breath and eagerly await your apply.
Nguyen: Your point about tennis players always playing for their country is a good one and it's the main reason I think the qualifying process via Davis and Fed Cup is pointless. Is there any other sport wherein a player's identity is so intertwined with his or her nationality? I would argue no. In three weeks one man and one woman will be standing in the middle of Court Philippe Chatrier hugging (or biting, as the case may be) their trophy as their flag is raised and their national anthem plays. Every time these players step on the court they fly their respective flags and represent their country's tennis tradition, and every win brings glory, honor, and bragging rights back home. Serena was asked about the ITF changes and she highlighted this exact fact. "I think that tennis is one of the few sports in which you play so long and you play all year for your country and then you still have to prove yourself playing for your country again."
But again, is the ITF really asking that much of the players here? Four ties. FOUR TIES in four years. That's so much easier than any other alternative like an Olympic trials-type tournament that you're suggesting. That said, I will reward your line about things getting "bloody domestically" with this potential scheme: Right now, no country is allowed to send more than four players into each singles event. So how about we give three direct entrances and leave the fourth spot open for a playoff? That could be fun for countries like France, the United States, and Spain. But I bet if you proposed this to the players they'd whinge and whine, too.
I think you and I agree that the Olympics shouldn't be just like any other tournament. They should be special and different. To that end, I think the current Olympics qualification system is great. It makes qualifying a multi-year process as opposed the result of a one-off trial. Besides, as a genuine fan of Davis Cup and Fed Cup, how could I argue with a system that ensures we get the best players involved in the competition? We may not see huge impact on Davis Cup, where all the top guys except for Roger Federer seem committed to play. But the rule change could be a boon for Fed Cup, which suffers in prestige when Serena and Maria are able to skip it as much as they do.
Rothenberg: Just to get some sense of what it's like in other sports, let's look at the Olympic qualification rules for another individual sport. With fencing, all the athletes who have a certain world ranking on April 2nd automatically qualified, and the rest were given a chance to compete in designated zonal Olympic qualification tournaments. That format, almost completely unchanged, could work in tennis perfectly. But the International Tennis Federation has more self-serving plans in mind.
The ITF knows that many top players wouldn't play Fed Cup or Davis Cup without the rules they have in place, so they leverage what players do want (the Olympics) to force them to show up where they don't want. The ITF is trying to support a less-important event much in the same way that season ticket packages for pro sports teams force you to purchase tickets you don't want to meaningless pre-season games. The ITF shouldn't need to resort to that if it thinks that Davis Cup and Fed Cup are worthwhile competitions.
I also think it doesn't make sense to have a system for Olympic qualification that isn't at all merit based. The criteria for playing in the Olympics is just to show up for Davis/Fed Cup matches, not to, you know, actually have to win them. What other sport grades only based on attendance? If players were forced to have to win a Davis Fed Cup match to qualify for the Olympics, then things would get interesting, and the relevance of the actual Davis/Fed Cup matches as they pertain to Olympic qualifying would become tangible.
But as it is now, you just have to show up. You don't have to play or even pick up a racket. Venus Williams, still recovering from injury and months away from her return to tour, had to schlep all the way to Germany last spring to get the appropriate attendance check mark on her Olympic passport. What does anyone gain from that pointless transoceanic voyage? Kevin Anderson, who might have been something of a dark horse at these Olympics (particularly in doubles) decided that it wasn't worth it to him to have to travel from his base in Illinois to zonal ties in South Africa repeatedly during the season, and as a consequence he has been locked out of competing. South Africa, hardly a tennis powerhouse, takes a hit by his lack of attendance.
And those who are dedicated Davis Cup players aren't necessarily dedicated Olympians. Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick have both been supremely loyal to Davis Cup but skipped the 2008 Olympics (and Fish is again skipping this year).
We haven't even mentioned that whole "making yourself available" loophole that players have used to get around the previous (and presumably future) rules. Are they really trying to convince us that Russian Fed Cup Captain Shamil Tarpischev wouldn't use Maria Sharapova on occasions when she had truly "made herself available"?
This is not to say that I think Davis Cup and Fed Cup are pointless. They're not. I love the atmosphere, I love the dedication its loyalist players show to it, and I love that that loyalty is often rewarded with success. On the strength of consistent dedication from Flavia Pennetta and Francesca Schiavone (neither of whom were in the top 10 or seriously contending for Grand Slams most of that time), Italy managed to become a Fed Cup powerhouse, winning three titles in the last six years. Conversely, the GOAT-laden nation of Switzerland has barely managed to stay in the Davis Cup World Group over that same stretch. I like that countries get out of the competitions what they put into it, and I don't think tightening the thumbscrews and forcing participation is the way to improve the event. Don't make it a chore -- it will only hurt morale. Playing these events should be more fun than a trip to the DMV.
If it keeps getting more arduous to qualify for the Olympics, we will see the fields diminish. And tennis, already not a high-profile sport on the Olympic spectrum, can't afford that. Do we want a quasi-elite field competing for a devalued gold medal the way it is in Olympic men's soccer now? Let's not. The ITF should try to make the most important sporting event in the world the best it can be on the Olympic side. Anything else amounts to sabotage. If you want to have Olympic tennis be relevant, you need the best players there. And the ITF forcing players to make four unrelated trips to places like Kharkiv on their increasingly Kafkaesque side circuit does not achieve that.