BEIJING, China -- Tennis returned to prominence at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which featured the most competitive field since it was reintroduced as an Olympic sport in 1988. Players often skipped the preceding Games, arguing that the four Grand Slams should remain the most prestigious competitions in the sport. With the tennis schedule already jam-packed with tournaments, playing the Olympics usually meant a player would have to disrupt his or her preparation for the U.S. Open -- then World No. 6 Andy Roddick and 2004 silver-medalist Mardy Fish opted to skip Beijing in 2008 to better their chances in New York. Despite the absence of Roddick and Fish, Beijing was the first time tennis felt like a can't-miss event at the Olympics, with 17 of the top 20 men and 18 of the top 20 women playing in the field -- a huge step up from the 1996 Games in Atlanta when only three of the top ten men entered.
With top players catching the Olympic fever, the Games produced some spectacular moments. Here are the most memorable:
Rafael Nadal wins gold
When you look back on Nadal's career, 2008 marks the beginning of a new era. He came into Beijing with wins over Federer in the French Open final and the Wimbledon final, and was poised to take over the No. 1 ranking for the first time in his career. He continued his incredible summer by defeating Novak Djokovic in the semifinals and then Fernando Gonzalez in the final to give Spain its first Olympic gold medal in tennis. He also became the first top-five player to win gold, adding some heft and legitimacy to the idea of tennis at the Olympics, which was often marred by the top players losing early.
Highlights from Nadal's win over Djokovic in the semifinal, which ended on a heart-wrenching miss from the Serb's racket that left him in tears.
The Russians sweep the medals
For the first time in 100 years, the women's singles podium was swept by a single nation in Beijing in 2008. Fifth-seeded Elena Dementieva defeated Dinara Safina 3-6, 7-5, 6-3 to win the gold medal and Vera Zvonareva defeated Li Na 6-0, 7-5 in the bronze medal match. The triumph would be the crowning achievement of Dementieva's career. Oft-regarded at the time as the best player yet to win a Slam, Dementieva's run to the gold included a 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 win over Serena Williams in the quarterfinals.
Highlights from that big quarterfinal win:
Li Na yells at the Chinese crowd to "shut up" in English
The 2008 Olympics were a breakout tournament for Li. Playing on home soil as the No. 1 Chinese player, she defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova and Venus Williams to advance to the semifinals against Safina. But after losing a key point, Li lashed out at the Chinese fans, who were cheering their advice during points. Here's how she recounted the incident in her memoir:
"It was 5–4 my way, and the match was within reach, but just as I was returning the ball, the voice sounded again: ‘Charge the net! Smash!’ Oddly enough, I did move in to smash. The ball went out, and I lost the point. Before I even knew what I was doing, my body got ahead of me. All the pent-up frustration broke out. I turned to face the crowd and yelled, ‘Shut up!’ in English. The scene suddenly grew very quiet. The faces of the spectators wore expressions of disappointment and hurt. I was shocked by my own impulsiveness. What was I doing? I was speechless, guilt flooding over me. I lost interest in the game, and it was soon over, with Safina the victor. After the match, I was furious, but also tormented by guilt. I owed a big ‘I’m sorry’ to the audience. To me, ‘shut up’ merely meant, ‘That’s not right; you’re disturbing me’. My frustration had usually been vented on Jiang Shan, but this time, I lost control. Obviously, this wasn’t the way a mature athlete should behave."
The incident merely added to her reputation as China's rebel and the Chinese web-o-sphere were critical of her use of English, which felt like a slap in the face.
James Blake knocks out No. 1 Roger Federer in Olympic debut
In his Olympic debut, Blake ended Federer's bid for singles gold in the quarterfinals. Earning his first win over Federer in nine tries, the last American standing won 6-4, 7-6 (2). The top-seeded Federer had just come off losing the epic Wimbledon final to Nadal, and his four and a half year reign at No. 1 would end the following week when Nadal took over for the first time in his career.
Here's Blake talking about the win, which turned out to be his only career-win over Federer:
Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka's golden -- but weird -- celebration
Federer put aside his singles disappointment to win a surprise gold in doubles with Wawrinka. In tribute to Wawrinka carrying the team to victory, the pair celebrated their wins with Federer "warming his hands" on Wawrinka's "log", which was obviously on fire. It wasn't as dirty as it sounds, but it was weird.
The hand-warming celebration:
Fernando Gonzalez courts controversy
It wasn't the best moment for Gonzalez. The Chilean beat Blake in the semifinals 4-6, 7-5, 11-9 to guarantee himself a silver medal. It was a medal that was -- at least from Blake's perspective -- heavily tarnished. After holding serve to go up 9-8 in the final set, Blake hit a shot directly at Gonzalez, who was standing at the net. Gonzelez tried to dodge the body-blow but the ball looked to have glanced off his racket before landing long. The umpire didn't see the touch, Gonzalez didn't own up to it, and Blake eventually lost -- and let it be known that he was enraged.
"We know when [the ball] touches us," Blake said. "And he knew that. You call it yourself because it is the right thing to do."
"Should I expect him to do that? Maybe not. Maybe I shouldn't expect people to hold themselves to high standards of sportsmanship. But yes, I did expect a little more in the Olympics. We are competing under the banner of this event, to promote sportsmanship, to promote goodwill amongst countries."
You can see the point at the 1:08 mark below: