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TENNIS AT THE OLYMPICS

Posted By Linda Pearce  
19/07/2021
13:00 PM

How Team Djokovic must have wrestled with this one - and not in the Olympics’ traditional Greco-Roman style. When the rarest achievement in tennis, the calendar Grand Slam, is just one US Open title away, do you risk everything with a high-stakes detour that, admittedly, could deliver an even more glittering prize?

Via social media on Friday, the world No.1 confirmed his intention to chase a second Olympic medal in Tokyo, thus remaining in contention for the so-called “Golden Slam” achieved only by Steffi Graf in 1988.

The US Open starts just 29 days after men's final day. How disastrous if it all was to go horribly wrong in a Covid-swamped country labouring under a State of Emergency and compromise Djokovic's quest for what Australian Rod Laver, in 1969, was the last man to complete.

While priorities are an individual matter, of course, the broader should-tennis-be-in-the-Olympics debate is a regular one. And rarely more so than this in 2021, when a sport that has enjoyed only a tenuous hold on Games acceptance since its return after a 64-year absence is destined to be drastically diminished by virus-related complications.

Given the no-shows, for various reasons, of the likes of Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, recent US Open champions Dominic Thiem and Bianca Andreescu and Australians Alex De Minaur and Nick Kyrgios on what is an ever-lengthening list, it seems the closer we get towards the July 23 start date, the more that any resemblance between the expected field and the actual line-up seems almost coincidental. 

Indeed, tennis and the Olympics have shared an interesting on-off-on history, with the sport on the program from the inaugural Games in Athens in 1896 until a dispute over amateurism in 1924, returning twice thereafter as a demonstration sport before full readmittance in 1988 in Seoul, where Steffi Graf and Miroslav Mecir were the first singles gold medallists of the modern era. 

Yet the fact that it is included at all continues to be problematic, given the enduring argument that the Olympics should be pinnacle for all those competing - which, for example, explains the fact that the men’s football event is typically restricted to those aged under 23, to distinguish it from the all-powerful FIFA World Cup. 

This time, in a welcome boost for its advocates, not only Djokovic but women’s No.1 Ash Barty will also compete as part of Australia's 10-strong team in which Max Purcell has replaced the unfortunate de Minaur and veteran Sam Stosur will be at her fifth Games.

Not only is Barty continuing her Indigenous trailblazing, she is, as always, doing the PR-positive thing. Of course she is. Never mind how unappealing the prospect of returning to a two-week hotel quarantine if she had instead slipped back home to Springfield would undoubtedly have been, the top seed could still have spent the next few weeks in the Hamptons, or on the Cote d’Azur, rather than entering the no-fans, largely-fun-free bubble that the semi-injured Kyrgios could not, well, stomach.

This writer has been fortunate to cover two Summer Olympics: Sydney and Beijing. The contrast was stark between my main sport, gymnastics, which gets its one big moment every four years, and tennis, which has four big moments annually. Which is not to diminish the latter’s significance for those involved, who are competing for neither prizemoney nor - since 2012 - rankings points.

My enduring tennis memory from 2000 is the Woodies’ raw emotions after their loss to Canadians Sebastian Lareau and Daniel Nestor in the gold medal match. Mark Woodforde’s perspective - and long before he became an ITF board member, to be fair - is at the seriously-enamoured end of the passion scale, ranking his 1996 Olympic gold as his career highlight.

Among the most famous images from Beijing, meanwhile, were of Swiss flag-bearer Federer and his pal Stan Wawrinka’s doubles celebration, with the YouTube clip entitled “15 seconds of friendship” that starts with tears and ends with a horizontal embrace between the red-shirted pair guaranteed to raise a smile.

Yet, for all the associated funding benefits that help to bankroll tennis’ global development, it still seems like the Games should be more of a showcase for swimmers, sprinters and softballers than highly-paid professionals - and that also extends to golfers, by the way - whose sporting pinnacle may lie elsewhere.

The coronavirus adds a whole new dramatic and unforeseen element in Tokyo, of course; delaying the Games by a year, costing the likes of de Minaur, Coco Gauff, Jo Konta and Dan Evans their spots following positive tests, and sure to restrict all that will occur from Friday's compromised opening ceremony onwards.

Kyrgios’ withdrawal came after both his Wimbledon abdominal injury and the news there would be zero fans. “If I’m to play the Olympics I want to do it the right way. With full crowds, with my guests there. When I’m able to watch other athletes do their thing. That’s the Olympics for me. The Olympics, the way it’s going to go on, is not the Olympics.’’

Which does, admittedly, have an unfortunate whiff of the tennis-entitled about it - you need to have “guests” at an Olympics?" - when contrasted with aquatic types who have spent a lifetime rising at 5am to spend kilometres following a black line towards this most treasured experience.

Federer, a four-time Olympian and Swiss flag-bearer, is now destined to finish his storied career without singles gold, although, more happily, it was at the 2000 Sydney Games that the then 18-year-old  started a romance with Swiss tennis teammate Miroslava Vavrinec that he would come to cherish even more.

Married in 2009, the Federer family now includes two sets of twins, and a pool room (or Swiss equivalent) that houses 20 major trophies. A knee-related setback was cited for Fed’s Tokyo withdrawal following his Wimbledon quarter-final loss, but the suspicion is that Covid complications also played a role. 

On the eve of his 40th birthday, though, the oft-told Olympic story of Roger and Mirka never really gets old, with the ponytailed teenager having recalled being encouraged by the Olympic - yes - wrestlers with whom he spent two weeks sharing accommodation  to consummate the growing Harbour City chemistry with a kiss.

You’re so young, said Mirka, all of 22 herself. And despite losing the bronze medal play-off to Arnaud DiPasquale, history will record a happy ending to the off-court element of the 19-year-old's debut Games, even if Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Nicolas Massu, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray shared the singles spoils during Federer’s quartet of attempts.

This month, back home on the couch in Switzerland, the Federers might well be reminiscing about Sydney 2000, where it all began. Perhaps they will also toast those romantically-inclined wrestlers who encouraged an ambitious first move, having recognised a good match when they saw one.

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