by Joel Drucker
What to make of tennis’ presence in the Olympics? This year in particular is quite intriguing, as the career arcs of a number of 30-something players – Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, the Bryan brothers, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Kim Clijsters – find them seeking to add Olympic glory as an exclamation point to an excellent career. An added enhancement is that for the first time, tennis’ Olympic competition will be played at a distinctly-rich tennis venue – Wimbledon. This too has increased the motivation for such players as Maria Sharapova, Novak Djokovic and, of course, Andy Murray.
Bringing tennis back to the Olympics in the early ‘80s was also a major catalyst for the game’s growth. “The most important thing in the Soviet Union was the Olympic game,” 1973 Wimbledon finalist Alex Metreveli told journalist Chris Bowers in 2007. Once tennis became an official Olympic sport, its credibility in Russia – and many other nations – soared, triggering popularity and growth that has only just begun to be felt across the broader tennis landscape.
On the other hand, how important is the Olympics as a tennis event? For most Olympic athletes, the occasion to excel on a world stage comes once every four years. During that same time, with four annual majors, tennis offers 16 opportunities. While surely earning an Olympic medal is meaningful, another way to assess its importance in tennis: How much of a gap is it in a player’s career to have not won one? Surely when Sharapova’scareer is over, no historian will say that while she won all four majors, she failed to take Olympic gold. As pleased as Elena Dementieva was to have earned gold, her resume would look much different with one major in lieu of that medal. Dare we equate Marc Rosset’s run to Olympic gold in ’92 with Roddick’s’03 US Open win? So in a sense, an Olympic medal is akin to an elective course – and, a chance for tennis players to gain cache with other athletes as crossover icons.
It’s also unfortunate that every four years the Olympics intrudes on the summer circuit. Tournaments in San Diego, Los Angeles and Washington will all take major hits when it comes to attracting deep player fields. It’s also uncertain what will result in Montreal, Toronto and Cincinnati. And for that matter, how will the energy players put into the Olympics impact the quality of play at the US Open?
This is not to say tennis should not be part of the Olympics. But perhaps another way to make the event even more compelling would be to alter the format. Currently it’s played as a series of tournaments – singles, doubles and this year, for the first time, mixed. But a whole new approach: Make it a team event. Fancy that – men and women, together, competing not just for themselves and the flag but as an ensemble. It’s one thing for a solitary player to take the medal in a singles match. But try this picture instead: the Olympic gold medal comes down to a mixed doubles match between the team of Andy Roddick-Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic-Ana Ivanovic. The sparks generated by that would surely showcase tennis in a very different way.
Joel Drucker has been involved with Tennis Channel since it hit the airwaves in 2003, initially as co-producer of the interview show “Center Court.” Subsequently he has been involved in dozens of the network’s activities, including work as story editor at all the Grand Slams and the production of numerous TC events