Blistering wins by tennis stalwarts Andy Murray and Serena Williams restored the luster to an Olympic competition that had taken on a fringe feel
This is an article from the Aug. 13, 2012 issue
ANDY MURRAY competed in three tennis events during these London Olympics, but the world's No. 4 player also did a bit of weightlifting. For his entire career Murray, 25, has been tasked with turning around the tennis fortunes of Great Britain, a country whose last male Grand Slam champion was crowned before World War II. The onus is particularly heavy at Wimbledon, where there's an annual outbreak of Murray Mania. It's a national contagion, the entire U.K. obsessing over Murray's fortunes, its hopes inflating and then, invariably, deflating. On July 8, Murray lost in the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer, which left him (and much of the crowd) in tears. "I'm getting closer," he said. With the Games held in London and Murray representing one of Team GB's best medal chances, the weight quickly returned.
Yet there were critical differences between this event and Wimbledon. With so many other competitions going on around town, Murray Mania was mild. And as the national attention dispersed, so did the pressure. A string of Brits won gold, and Murray took in all the successes. Last Saturday night, the eve of his gold medal match against Federer, he watched countryfolk Mo Farah win gold in the 10K run and Jessica Ennis win the heptathlon. "When you see someone win gold, you want to go out there and do the same thing," Murray said.
Under skies that, symbolically, cleared as soon as he and Federer took the court, Murray played what he rightly called "the match of my life." For three sets he simply out-Federered an uncharacteristically flat Federer, winning with a combination of shotmaking, versatility, graceful movement and defense. On match point, with Centre Court covered in Union Jack flags and his mother, Judy, already quivering in the stands, Murray smoked an ace past Federer, taking Great Britain's first tennis gold in more than a century.
A BRIT WINNING tennis gold in London capped a cracker of an event, as the English say. The motto of these Olympics, Inspire a generation, is on display throughout London. But on the tennis courts the motto might well have been Inspire a regeneration, for a theme of renewal ran through the competition. Tennis, once a mainstay of the Olympics, disappeared from the Games after 1924. While the sport returned in 1988, it often had a fringe feel—the sixth ring, as it were. This marks the year that tennis returned in full.
The players treated the competition as the equivalent of a Grand Slam tournament; every star in the cosmos entered the draw. And they weren't just at the Olympics; they were in the Olympics. In the opening ceremony eight racketeers carried the flags of their respective countries. Shorn of any sense of entitlement, the players frequented the Athletes' Village, trading pins and posing for photos with other competitors. "I felt like a statue," said Maria Sharapova. (Venus and Serena Williams innovatively merged the two activities, posing in exchange for pins.)
The event was played on the lawns of the venerable All England Club, the grass courts magically resurfaced just three weeks after the 2012 Wimbledon championships. (Talk about inspiring regeneration.) In some ways the grounds were transformed. The decor was changed to accommodate the Olympic color scheme. The rule that players wear all-white attire was suspended. Suffice it to say that the Olympics marked the first time that a Pet Shop Boys performance preceded Centre Court matches, a flash mob broke out near Court 18, and an absurdly enthusiastic Fun Patrol announcer asked the crowd, "All right, yo, who's pumped up for some tennn-nnnnnis?" But familiarity with the court and the complex bred familiar results.
In the past, Olympic tennis has yielded upset-ravaged draws and surprise winners (see: Nicolàs Mass√∫ of Chile in 2004). This year the victors were Murray and another standby, Serena Williams. Fresh from having won Wimbledon last month, Williams has recovered from injury and a pulmonary embolism and is again the queen of the women's game. Yet for all of her achievements, she had never won an Olympic singles medal. Now age 30, she wouldn't get a better opportunity than in 2012. And she knew it.
Treating tennis as a demonstration sport, Williams dominated the competition the way green dominates the color of the grass, turning her opponents into helpless bystanders. In her six matches she dropped a total of 17 games. In her final three matches she beat Caroline Wozniacki, Victoria Azarenka and Sharapova—the three most recent players to hold the WTA's top ranking—by scores of 6--0, 6--3; 6--1, 6--2; and 6--0, 6--1. "I never feel invincible," she said after demolishing Sharapova in the gold match, "but I do feel good about my game." Williams did her usual ka-booms on her serve, often hitting the first ball harder than most of the men in the field. From the backcourt she slugged away with unanswerable power, depth and accuracy. She volleyed on occasion. She also defended masterfully, chasing down her opponents' offerings and then firing back with even more force. Against six opponents, each of them younger, she played with an imperiousness that seemed to say, "Kids, get off my lawn." And how much did it mean? On Saturday night she tweeted, Gold Medal!!! I can't believe it. I got the singles gold!!!!!! I'm gonna sleep [on] it tonight!
With no noticeable indentations on her face when she woke up the next morning, Williams partnered with her sister Venus to take gold in the women's doubles. Meanwhile, Bob and Mike Bryan, the twins from California, scored gold in the men's doubles. Mike also won bronze in the mixed with Lisa Raymond. For a country purportedly in the throes of a tennis recession, the U.S. came away with a trove of precious metals. (Murray, too, won a second medal: Less than an hour after beating Federer, he returned to play mixed doubles with British teenager Laura Robson. While the two settled for silver, losing to Azarenka and Max Mirnyi of Belarus, the crowd was too delirious to care.)
Late Sunday afternoon in the tunnels of Centre Court two onlookers spoke casually as the Chariots of Fire theme competed for audio space with chants of "Andy Murray! Andy Murray!"
"You're a tennis fan?" one asked the other. "I am now," came the response. It was the voice of an inspired generation.
For an offbeat take on the London Games, read Luke Winn's blog at SI.com/olympics or follow @lukewinn on Twitter.