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Tennis preview: Sport's biggest stars ready to compete for Olympic gold

Can Novak Djokovic bounce back from his Wimbledon loss with his first gold Olympic medal? Will the Williams sisters win another doubles gold? Plenty to watch as tennis in Rio kicks off.

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Each year, four major events tent-pole the tennis calendar: Players head to Melbourne in January, followed by a summer of Slams in Paris and London and the final event in New York in early September. But this year, we’re lucky enough to have a fifth main attraction as players will compete for their countries, and gold-medal glory, in Rio de Janiero.

Unlike London 2012, where the green grass of Wimbledon hosted the Olympic competition, matches in Rio will be played on hardcourts at the Olympic Tennis Centre, which features 16 courts, some of them temporary. A total of 172 players are expected to compete in five events—men’s and women’s singles and doubles and mixed doubles—held from August 6-14.

Tennis made its Olympic debut in Athens in 1896. Now, for the Summer Games 120 years later in Rio, SI’s tennis experts Jon Wertheim, Jamie Lisanti and Stanley Kay break down everything you need to know about Olympic tennis, from top storylines to players to watch and more.

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Top storylines

• What’s up with Novak Djokovic? A month ago, Djokovic was simply dominating men’s tennis, having won four straight major titles. His mystifying third round loss at Wimbledon has reset the narrative. You don’t kick Zeus off the mountain for one bad day; but there is a sudden sense that Djokovic is vulnerable. At the Olympics—where he failed to medal in 2012—he can reclaim his aura. Or lend support to the (wishful, perhaps) thinking that he is slowing down.

• How will the Williams sisters acquit themselves in what is likely their last Olympics? Serena and Venus—who started their Olympics careers in Sydney—are coming gold medal performance in singles and doubles in London. Their play at Wimbledon also portends gold.

• How is Roger Federer’s knee? The most painful sight at Wimbledon was not Roger Federer, age 34, losing a semifinal match he should have won. It was his receiving treatment on his left knee. One suspects he’ll play these Games even if he’s not 100%. (These are tennis players; not golfers.) But if the knee is troubling him, he is likely to bail on mixed doubles.

• At the 2012 London Games, the UK’s Andy Murray stole the show, beating Roger Federer in the final match on Wimbledon’s Centre Court and adding to the success of “Team GB.” There are no Brazilian contenders in Rio, so which players can win over the crowd?

• Team USA’s women are heavy favorites to reach the podium, but the men—coming off a crushing Davis Cup defeat to Croatia—aren’t expected to make much noise in Rio. Top–ranked American John Isner (world No. 16) is skipping the event, as is Djokovic-slayer Sam Querrey (No. 29), who this week questioned whether tennis should even be an Olympic sport. Without them, it’s basically up to the Bryan brothers, who won doubles gold in London but haven’t won a Grand Slam title since the 2014 U.S. Open. No. 25-ranked Steve Johnson is the highest–ranked American singles player in the Games, and he’s joined by Jack Sock (No. 26), Denis Kudla (No. 100) and Brian Baker (No. 163), who on Tuesday won his first ATP tour singles match since 2013. Not ideal.


Players to watch

Angelique Kerber (Germany): The 2016 Australian Open champion and ’16 Wimbledon runner-up is a rising talent on the women’s tour. She reached the quarterfinals at the 2012 Games, so expect her to make waves in Rio for Germany.

Andy Murray (Great Britain): The defending gold medalist enters Rio with momentum after dominating the field at Wimbledon en route to his third major title. Unlike four years ago, he won’t have the home crowd behind him—but he’s an early favorite to defend his medal. 

Brian Baker (USA): If you’ve never heard of the 31-year-old American, that’s quite all right. Ranked No. 546, Baker’s career has been plagued by seemingly never-ending injuries, but thanks to a protected ranking, he qualified for Team USA.

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Rafael Nadal (Spain): Rafa hasn’t played a match since May 27, when he withdrew from the French Open with a left wrist injury. The 14-time Grand Slam champ and 2008 Olympic gold medalist in Bejing 2008 is Spain’s flagbearer and is expected to return to competition in Rio in singles, and in doubles with partner Marc Lopez.

Elena Vesnina (Russia): The 29-year-old Russian was surprise semifinalist at Wimbledon and, in addition to singles, will make a strong doubles team for Russia with partner with Ekaterina Makarova.

Roger Federer/Martina Hingis (Switzerland): Hingis last played in the Olympics in 1996, two years before Federer turned pro. This mixed doubles pair may be past its prime, but these two former world No. 1s are going to be fun to watch in Rio—and despite their mileage, tough to beat. 

• ​Rio’s Olympians: Like the city, its athletes overcoming their own obstacles

Leander Paes (India): Think Federer and Hingis are old? Paes, 43, is set to play in his seventh (!) Olympics, extending his record for Indian athletes and tennis players. The doubles specialist, who won bronze at Atlanta 1996 in singles, is partnering with 36-year-old Rohan Bopanna in Rio. 

Juan Martin del Potro (Argentina): Del Potro fell to Federer in the 2012 Olympic semifinals, but the Argentine’s last four years have been characterized by injuries. After returning from an extended injury spell in February, Delpo is showing signs of reinvigoration, upsetting Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon this summer. 

Bob and Mike Bryan (USA): It’s been a rough few years for the Bryan Brothers, Bob and Mike, the best doubles team of all time, but now closer to age 40 than 30. They remain one of the top teams, though. And they remain one of the top teams to hail from the same country. Can they take advantage of this and defend their 2012 gold medal?

• Usain Bolt looking to close historic Olympic career with a bang

Withdrawal watch

While there are big stars set to take the court in Rio, Olympic tennis will be without some notable names from the WTA and ATP Tours this summer. Romania’s Simona Halep, Canada’s Milos Raonic and Czech Repbulic’s Tomas Berdych were the first players to withdraw that cited the Zika virus as their main reason for not competing. Frenchman Richard Gasquet announced he will miss the Olympics due to a back injury in July. After making the quarterfinals in London 2012, No. 16-ranked American John Isner will also not participate this year, citing logistics and scheduling conflicts as the main reasons for his decision. Other players include World No. 9 Dominic Thiem of Austria, South Africa’s Kevin Anderson, Spain’s Feliciano Lopez and

In early June, Aussie Nick Kyrgios announced his desire to play Olympic tennis but said he would not go to Rio this year because “the Australian Olympic Committee has other plans.” Fellow countrymen Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis, who is still recovering from shoulder surgery, will also miss the games, and Lleyton Hewitt opted out of his role as Australian men’s tennis team coach in July.

Belarussia’s Victoria Azarenka, who won the gold medal at the London 2012 Olympics in mixed doubles with Max Mirnyi, will not play in Rio after she announced that she is expecting her first child at the end of the year. Russia’s Maria Sharapova will also miss the Olympics after her appeal of her two-year ban for doping was postponed until September.

Rules refresher

Matches are played in best-of-three sets, except for the men’s singles final, which is decided in the best-of-five sets format, with a final set tiebreak, if necessary. 

There will be 64 players each in the men’s and women’s singles draws, 32 teams each in the men’s and women’s doubles draws and 16 teams in the mixed doubles.

Players will not receive WTA or ATP rankings points, or prize money, for participating in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Gold medal dates

Friday, August 12: Men’s doubles

Saturday, August 13: Women’s singles

Sunday, August 14: Men’s singles, women’s doubles, mixed doubles