Tennis at London Olympics: Nine things you should probably know
Look, I'm not going to pretend that these nitty-gritty factoids are anything you need to know. It is perfectly normal to enjoy a tasty grilled sausage without having to know what horrors went into making it. But the way I see it, the better we understand how this whole "tennis at the Olympics" thing is supposed to work, the closer we get to taking this competition seriously. And by "we" I mainly mean "me." I have read the polling and I hear you loud and clear.
Here are nine things about the upcoming tennis competition at the London Games that you might be interested to know.
1. The Basics
The nine-day tennis competition will commence less than 24 hours after Friday's opening ceremonies. Singles and doubles matches start on Saturday, mixed doubles begin next Wednesday and the entire competition concludes on Aug. 5. The ITF will oversee the competition, which means ITF rules apply. So no calling your coaches to the court, ladies. You'll have to rely on their hand signals and shouting, just like the guys do. Equality!
Here are the important dates for you to know as you plan your tennis viewing schedule:
• Saturday, July 28: Singles and doubles competition begins.
• Tuesday, July 31: Doubles quarterfinals.
• Wednesday, Aug. 1: Mixed doubles competition begins.
• Thursday, Aug. 2: Singles quarterfinals and doubles semifinals.
• Friday, Aug. 3: Singles and mixed doubles semifinals.
• Saturday, Aug. 4: Women's singles gold- and bronze-medal matches, men's doubles gold- and bronze-medal matches, and mixed doubles bronze-medal match.
• Sunday, Aug. 5: Men's singles gold- and bronze-medal matches, women's doubles gold- and bronze-medal matches, and mixed gold-medal match.
The tennis competition will be aired on Bravo every day in an eight-hour window that begins at 7 a.m. ET. Check your listings.
2. Draw preview
The draw consists of 64 players for singles (16 seeds), 32 teams for doubles (eight seeds) and 16 teams for mixed doubles (four seeds). Next Tuesday is the deadline for mixed doubles teams to sign in, so that draw, along with the finalized teams, will be revealed next week.
There's one significant change to the draw process that changes things up in London. To quote the ITF rule, "If there are two (2) players/teams from the same country they shall be drawn into different halves of the Draw. If there are three (3) or four (4) players from the same country they shall be drawn into different quarters of the Draw." That means there won't be any chance of a Serena vs. Venus first-rounder (can't be in the same quarter), nor will doubles teammates Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka meet until the final (can't be in the same half).
3. No third-set tiebreakers
All matches will be best-of-three with no final-set tiebreaker except for the men's singles final -- which is best-of-five -- and mixed doubles matches, which will have a 10-point match tiebreaker as a third set. With no third-set tiebreaker, it's entirely possible we could get some marathon matches. So be sure to have yourself a hearty breakfast each morning.
4. Ranking points
So how do you divvy up points for the Olympics? Too few and the ITF can't entice top players to play for fear that they're giving up ranking points. Give too many and players may play the Olympics and skip Masters and Premier-level events. Cue King Solomon. Both the ATP and WTA agreed to award more than a mid-level ATP 500 or WTA Premier 700, but fewer than a Masters 1000 or Premier Mandatory.
ATP ranking points (singles only):
750 Gold medal
450 Silver medal
340 Bronze medal
270 Fourth place
70 Third round
35 Second round
5 First round
WTA ranking points (singles only)
685 Gold medal
470 Silver medal
340 Bronze medal
260 Fourth place
95 Third round
55 Second round
1 First round
5. Composition of doubles and mixed doubles teams
The rules for singles are simple: 56 men and women qualified directly based on the rankings on June 11. The ITF awarded six wild cards based on rankings and geographic or national organizing committee representation. Finally, two wild cards were allocated by the Tripartite Commission to players representing countries that may be underrepresented in the competition.
The singles competition is what we're used to seeing at any typical tennis tournament, but given that not every doubles player plays with his or her countrymen/women throughout the year, the process of determining rankings for qualification and seeding purposes can be a little complicated. For both doubles and mixed doubles teams, qualification, rankings and seedings are determined based on the prospective team's combined ranking on June 11, with each player using his or her singles or doubles ranking, whichever is higher. In other words, Victoria Azarenka may be ranked No. 55 in doubles, but she can use her No. 1 singles ranking to add to Max Mirnyi's No. 1 doubles ranking, to get a combined ranking of 2, the lowest of any possible combination of players in the field. And with that, you're looking at your No. 1 seeds in mixed doubles.
To add yet another wrinkle to some of the doubles teams you'll be seeing, any doubles player ranked inside the top 10 gains direct entry into the doubles event as long as his/her nominated partner has a doubles ranking, regardless of how low it is. Hence the teams of No. 1 Daniel Nestor and No. 198 Vasek Pospisil, and the drama-infused pairing of No. 7 Leander Paes and the only man in India willing to pair with him, No. 208 Vardnan Vishnu.
Finally, if you're a singles player, you're eligible to play doubles as long as your combined ranking (again, using the better of each player's singles or doubles ranking) gets you into the 32-team competition. That would explain the pairing of Andy Roddick and John Isner (combined rank of 42) as an eligible team and Andy Murray with his brother, Jamie (combined rank of 38).
6. What happens if a player doesn't mind the gap and sprains an ankle?
Up until last week, a player who withdrew because of injury could be replaced by another player from his or her country. That's why Feliciano Lopez is now passed out on the couch in London and Mona Barthel is heading to London in Andrea Petkovic's stead. But those days are over.
As of now, if a player withdraws, he or she will be replaced by a player who is on site and not competing in the singles event, with the selection based on the most recent computer rankings. In other words, a doubles player. This is how Great Britain's Heather Watson, whose ranking was too low to qualify for direct entry into the singles competition but was given a wild card for doubles, found herself into the singles competition on Tuesday when it was announced that Alona Bondarenko from Ukraine withdrew.
On Thursday, Ivo Karlovic withdrew and was replaced by Philipp Petzschner. Who's in action in doubles, but not singles, to be on deck should there be another singles withdrawal? For the men, it's Eduardo Schwank. For the women, it's Laura Robson.
One final note on mixed doubles: If a player withdraws after Tuesday, he or she can be replaced by a player from the same country who is on site and competing in another competition.
7. How are they going to juggle all this?
Ever wonder how the order of play is compiled when juggling singles and doubles matches? With a significant number of players in more than one event, here's how the ITF will try to schedule all the matches without grinding the players down into a fatigued nub. Unless the weather disrupts the schedule, players won't be scheduled for more than two matches a day, which won't be scheduled less than 12 hours after their last match on the preceding day.
And if you're like me and always wondered what exactly "After Suitable Rest" meant on an order of play, here's how the ITF schedules the minimum rest periods between singles and doubles matches: If s/he played less than one hour -- 30 minutes rest. If between an hour and an hour and a half -- one hour rest. If more than one and a half hours, one and a half hours rest.
8. Did they fix the grass?
That was then, this is now. Eddie Seaward (head groundsman at the All England Club) and his crew have done an impeccable job fixing the grass, but one question remains: Is it all aesthetic? How will the new grass hold up under nine days of play and how are the courts playing? Here's an initial dispatch from Wertheim: