Debates Over Role Linger Decades Into Tennis’ Olympic Return
All the consternation over whether golf's addition to the Summer Games makes sense raises the question of whether tennis — another individual, professional sport with four annual Grand Slam tournaments and millions of dollars in prize money — belongs, too.
To U.S. Olympic men's tennis coach Jay Berger, the answer is obvious.
"When it first starts, people don't know what to expect. And I think golf is having this a little bit, in its infancy. They don't know what the meaning is going to be. But you look at the draw for the tennis, the very top players want to play," Berger said. "I've seen those top players cry for joy at having won a bronze medal. And I've seen players cry because they lost a medal. When you get down to it, the Olympics kind of transfer to any sport, really."
Sam Querrey, for one, isn't so sure.
Querrey's ranking made him eligible to be a member of Berger's team in Rio de Janeiro, where the draw is Thursday and play begins Saturday, but he opted to skip the trip to Brazil.
His take, essentially: Let the gymnasts, swimmers and sprinters have their moment.
"I feel like the Olympics should only be sports where, like, that's the pinnacle of your sport: If you win the Olympics, there's nothing better," said Querrey, who ended Novak Djokovic's 30-match Grand Slam winning streak at Wimbledon. "But I think for tennis, you ask anyone, they'd rather win a Grand Slam over the Olympics."
That might be the case for many folks, but certainly not for all.
Venus Williams, who has won four gold medals, calls her Olympic success "beyond anything I ever dreamed" and places its importance "always at the top" — above her seven major singles titles.
"The proudest moment for me, when they do the on-court announcements," she said, "are the Olympic results."
She and others would hate to see the International Olympic Committee, which brought tennis back in 1988 after a 64-year absence, drop the sport again.
And make no mistake: The Olympics have helped tennis grow worldwide.
"If you look at what's happened from '88 to now, our sport has really become even more international because of the Olympic movement," International Tennis Federation President David Haggerty said, pointing to a more than 40 percent increase in the number of nations that belong to his organization.
Just examine the WTA rankings. The week before Wimbledon in 1986, the top 100 women included 47 from the United States, and only 13 countries had more than one representative. The week before Wimbledon this year, the top 100 women included 14 Americans, and 21 countries had at least two members.
Still, the sense that the Olympic tennis tournament is not all that much different from, well, any tournament held during any week is inescapable for some.
The faces are, for the most part, familiar. So are the rules.
The events — men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles, mixed doubles — are found at each of the four Grand Slam tournaments. The U.S. Open starts a couple of weeks after the Rio competition ends and will be contested on the same surface, hard courts.
All of which prompts suggestions for a format change.
Have age restrictions of some sort, say, to promote future stars.
Or take a break from Davis Cup and Fed Cup in Olympic years and use something similar to their setup.
"I don't think what we have now is broken," WTA CEO Steve Simon said, "but I do think that the conversation about format, and potentially a team format, has merit."
International Tennis Hall of Fame CEO Todd Martin, who calls barely missing out on participating in singles at Atlanta in 1996 "one of my great disappointments," thinks Olympic tennis "needs to do something different to make it look like something different."
"I look at it and say, 'Why should the Olympics not be a team event?' Other sports figure out how to make it a team event," said Martin, the 1999 U.S. Open runner-up. "In tennis, we figure out how to make it an individual event, just like Roland Garros, just like Wimbledon."
One proposal: Each country could have three two-person teams in men's and women's tennis that would face off in singles and doubles.
Svetlana Kuznetsova, a two-time major champion from Russia, wants "a totally different format" and two full weeks of Olympic tennis, instead of nine days.
Her father coached Olympic cyclists; her brother won a silver in cycling. So she insists on this: Tennis must remain in the Summer Games.
"Being from my family, I know how important the Olympics are and how big a deal the Olympics are," Kuznetsova said. "So for me, tennis of course has to be in the Olympics. For Russians, winning a gold medal would be like winning a Grand Slam."