Five for Friday: Prepping for Olympic tennis at the All England Club
1. Olympic preparations: Less than 24 hours had passed since Roger Federer held the Gentlemen's Champions trophy over his head before the dizzying preparations for the Olympics began at the All England Club (the mauve London 2012 signage already adorned the outer courts). While the signage and the colored kits have been the talk of the town in the lead-up, I'm more concerned about the surface. Are we going to have to stare at the eyesore of those dirt patches at the baseline of Centre Court for 10 more days, or will the best grounds crew in the business be able to get the courts back to the pristine lush green that marked the first day of Wimbledon three weeks ago?
Much science and experimentation has gone into this process as the grounds crew, headed up Eddie Seaward, tries to strip down and regrow grass on 10 courts, including Centre Court, No. 1 Court, and No. 2 Court. The process will go (is going) like this: pregerminated seed will be laid down on those parts of the court that have been made bare, while the remainder of the courts that still have grass will rejuvenate on their own during the 20-day break. With proper care and a little cooperation from that fickle British weather (I know, don't laugh), the workers sound confident they'll be able to unveil some beautiful courts when the tennis competition begins on July 28.
2. Flying the flag: Federer says he's been offered the honor to fly the Swiss flag during the opening ceremony, but given the fact that he's been the flag-bearer for the past two Olympics, he's left the option open for Switzerland to bestow the honor on another athlete. Even if Federer declines, it's shaping up to be an impressive showing for tennis players, with eight confirmed as flag bearers for their countries. And if you can believe it, Leander Paes, the man who no other Indian player wants to play with, is on the short list for India. While Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharapova aren't surprise picks (though the debate over Sharapova's "Russianness" rages on), a number of lesser-known players have gotten the nod as well. Keep and eye out for Agnieszka Radwanska (Poland), Marcos Baghdatis (Cypress), Horia Tecau (Romania), Max Mirnyi (Belarus) and Stephanie Vogt (Liechtenstein). It's a nice reminder of why tennis is a perfect fit for the Olympics -- it's thoroughly international and, with the rise of parity over the years, no single nation holds a monopoly on talent.
3. Mixing it up: Mixed doubles team announcements won't officially be made until a few days after the Olympics begin (it's based on on-site sign-in), but the U.S. slate took a bit of a turn at Wimbledon. For months we've been speculating about who might pair up with Serena Williams -- Andy Roddick, Mike and Bob Bryan and John Isner are all jockeying for position like bridesmaids readying themselves for the bouquet. But after playing 13 matches in 13 days at Wimbledon (and walking away with both a singles and doubles title, mind you), Williams has indicated that playing three events in 10 days might be too much. The mixed event would lose a bit of luster without her, but the Americans' medal hopes are still strong with Wimbledon champions Mike Bryan and Lisa Raymond emerging as clear front-runners, and Wimbledon semifinalists Bob Bryan and Liezel Huber right behind them.
4. Low-hanging fruit: While the Olympics are wreaking havoc on the player fields at traditionally strong tournaments like Stanford and Carlsbad, the weakened fields are giving some lower-ranked players opportunities they might not otherwise have. In Stanford, wild cards went to Stanford NCAA stars Nicole Gibbs and Mallory Burdette, who both won their first WTA Tour matches as a result. Coco Vandeweghe made her first tour semifinal after beating Urszula Radwanska, and 18-year old Laura Robson got into the main draw in Palermo (she likely would have been in qualies otherwise) and proceeded to beat two clay-court specialists to make her first semifinal as well. And addressing why Williams is in action this week -- have you seen how many points she has to defend through the U.S. Open? The Wimbledon champion has titles to defend in Stanford and Canada as well as U.S. Open final points. Next time she tells you the ranking doesn't matter, feel free to roll your eyes.
5. A plea for Venus: The flag-bearer for the U.S. hasn't been designated yet, so allow me to get on my soapbox and make a plea for Venus Williams to get the nod. She's a three-time Olympic gold medalist, winning singles and doubles in Athens and doubles in Beijing (she holds more gold medals than any other female tennis player). After being diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder Sjogren's syndrome last September and being off the tour for almost seven months, Venus started her comeback at almost 32 years old, with her sole motivation being to get her ranking up to qualify for the Olympics. Eyeing the top 56, Williams launched her comeback in Miami as No. 134. She won four matches there (including a victory over Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova) to crack the top 100. By the time the French Open rolled around two months later, she had hit her target. Given her age, illness and the dynamic nature of the women's game these days, she achieved something incredible, all in the name of the Olympics. There may be other athletes who are just as worthy of the honor of representing sporting achievement and character by holding that flag. But you'd be hard-pressed to find one who deserves it more.