By Matt Cronin
Given its real significance in the tennis world, which if there was a formal poll of the players taken it would end up being around the same importance of a ATP Masters Series or WTA Premier title - the Olympics has received an extraordinary amount of attention. Perhaps that's because the players realize that outside of the tennis world, to many general sports fans, an Olympic medal carries greater weight than regular tournament title does and can turn a player into historically significant and beloved figure in his or her own country.
Slovakia’s Dominika Cibulkova is a perfect example of a player who understands both sides of the coin. Two weeks ago, she told me that tennis’ majors were more important to her than the Olympics, but she also noted that her countryman Miloslav Mecir became famous in her nation precisely because he won the gold medal at the 1988 Games in Seoul.
Here’s a look at to what degree a medal would polish the resumes of each of the quarterfinalists.
While the Belarussian may have retaken the No. 1 ranking with Maria Sharapova’s flameout at Wimbledon, she has not won a big title since Miami and as ‘vocal’ as she can be on court, she’s been pretty quiet off court in re-declaring herself the world’s best player. That’s because since Miami, she hasn't been. An Olympic gold would put her back in the driver’s seat, but she’ll have a tough tussle against Angelique Kerber in the quarters.
Of all the very good Germans, Kerber is the one who has the most obvious Grand Slam winning potential. She reached Slam semis before, but hasn't yet shown the mental toughness to win the big points against the world’s elite. But she took a step forward in doing so against Venus Williams on Wednesday and if she medals, she’ll go into the US Open as a serious title threat.
Of course the reigning Wimbledon champion is the favorite to win the gold and yes, she’d love to do so as she has never medaled in singles. But from talking to Serena during the past few months I get the feeling that winning her first US Open since 2008 is far more important to her than the Olympics, especially after her two stunning defeats the last two times she competed in New York.
My has the Dane been awfully quiet since she lost her No. 1 ranking. She’s seems very happy off the court with her relationship with golfer Rory McIlroy, but on court she is still attempting to transition her game from being a primarily defensive player to one that is more offensive. The former No.1 needs to win a Slam to show the world that she was really as good as her ranking once was, and while an Olympic medal would make her flash her famous Caro smile, it won’t silence all the doubters. But a win over Serena on grass and further success during the rest of the tournament will go a long way in doing so.
Really, Sharapova could retire tomorrow and be pretty pleased after she completed a career Grand Slam at Roland Garros, but she carried the flag for Russia during the opening ceremonies and given that she’s only spent a few weeks there since moving to the United States at the age of eight, bringing a medal home for that Olympic crazed nation would be huge. A first meeting on grass against her old rival Kim Clijsters will surely be a big test and since it may be the last time they play each other, it's a must see.
It’s been a rocky road for Clijsters since she won the 2011 Australian Open as she has been riddled with injuries. That was her last title and the four-time Slam champ will retire after the upcoming US Open, which means that her opportunities to add to her already impressive resume are slim. Hanging a medal on the kitchen hearth at her home in Belgium would mean the world to her.
The Czech has had a so-so year, full of near misses at the Slams. She has won Wimbledon before and when healthy has enough firepower to beat anyone, but she needs to show that she can once again come though in a final. Only gold will be good enough for Kvitova.
Is the Russian the most underrated player on the WTA? Perhaps, but the creative Kirilenko continues to show that she has top 10 potential. She’s been very devoted to representing Russia and even a bronze medal would be a career achievement. But she’ll be a substantial underdog against Kvitova on grass
As the Swiss says, in two out three sets on grass, almost anything can happen, but he’s by far the most accomplished player on the surface and an Olympic gold medal in singles is one of the few things missing in his trophy cabinet. But winning his 17th Slam and retaking the No. 1 ranking at Wimbledon put a cherry on his career and I don't expect him to be devastated if he loses to John Isner in the quarters or to anyone else later on.
The big man seems to play his best with USTA coaching around (see his great results in Davis Cup this year) so he has to be given a shot to upset Federer, whom he did beat earlier this year on indoor clay. Isner has been a disappointment at the majors this season and should he medal it will give him a huge boost of confidence headed into the US Open.
Juan Martin Del Potro
Since his comeback from wrist surgery in 2011, Del Potro has put up very respectable results, but he has not shown the confidence or the level that he displayed in winning the 2009 US Open. He definitely needs a major boost of confidence and an Olympic medal would go a long way in convincing the Argentine that he still has top-5 stuff.
For the 22-year-old Nishikori, any type of medal would go a long way in proving that Japan’s highest-ranked player isn’t just a flash in the pan. He has already cracked the top 10 and has plenty of firepower. He could give Del Potro hell if he’s clicking early.
Clearly, winning a gold at his home country’s Olympic Games would be enormous for Murray. He has been unable to break through in a Slam in a three-out-five set format, but in two-out-three sets he’s been more effective, which means that if he faces Novak Djokovic in the semis finals (the final is three out of five) he will have a terrific shot to get to the gold medal round. But while medaling at home would certainly be rewarding, he still has to win a major to be called a truly elite player.
The Spaniard has really improved on faster surfaces. His serve is much more dependable, he isn’t as temperamental and he can dictate from inside the baseline. He’s already showed this year that he can play on quicker courts, and if he can medal, he will at least temporarily break Spain’s duopoly of Nadal and David Ferrer. But upsetting Murray at home seems like a nearly impossible task.
Jo Wilfried Tsonga
The big Frenchman has become remarkably consistent given how inconsistent he used to be, and with a game tailored to the grass courts, he is capable of winning it all. Like with Murray, a Slam title is more mandatory for Tsonga when it comes to getting complete respect in the locker room, but given how many times he’s been stopped short of glory at the majors, he’d even take bronze and wear it proudly.
Nothing short of gold medal will good enough for the Serbian, who has attained near god status in his county. Serbian fans expect it and so does he. As a dyed-in-the-wool nationalist, he’s super motivated to avenge his Wimbledon semifinal loss to Roger Federer and is playing extremely well. With most of the attention going Federer and Murray’s way, he might be able to sneak his way to gold.