What is more treasured: a Grand Slam title or an Olympics gold medal? When tennis returned to the Olympic Games as a medal sport in 1988 after a 64-year hiatus, even posing this question was unimaginable.
Cynics and critics, including the esteemed writer-broadcaster Bud Collins, then contended tennis didn’t need the Olympics and the Olympics didn’t need tennis. They could not be more wrong! Six years earlier in a World Tennis magazine editorial, International Tennis Federation secretary David Gray, provided the compelling reasons for readmitting tennis: “The universality of the sport, the growth of participation and public interest, our history (Baron de Coubertin had regarded us as suitable for the first modern Olympics in 1896), and the simplicity of our requirements.”
There will always be skeptics and bitter-enders, and as recently as 2004, all-time great Rod Laver told Tennis magazine, “I just think tennis doesn’t lend itself to being an Olympic sport. To me, the Olympics is track and field.” But the overwhelming support—and enthusiasm—of players, fans, sponsors and media for tennis in the Olympic Games is now a happy fact of life, not a subject for debate.
The fields have grown steadily stronger since 1988 and now equal those at Grand Slam events. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the singles competitions featured 17 of the top 20 men, and 18 of the top 20 women, with all of the top five men in attendance. The only top 20 women missing at the London Games are Kaia Kanepi and Andrea Petkovic, both injured, and Marion Bartoli because of her refusal to accept any coach other than her father. All of the top 10 men, except injured Rafael Nadal, are competing. Nadal, the 2008 gold medalist, called his withdrawal “one of the saddest days of my career.”
When Russian veteran Elena Dementieva captured the singles gold medal at Beijing, she stressed it meant much more to her than winning a major title would have. The tears of joy Roger Federer shed after he and Swiss compatriot Stanislas Wawrinka took the doubles gold medal in Beijing were so poignant that IOC President Jacques Rogge said that was one moment he would never forget. Grabbing his 17th major title at Wimbledon gratified The Mighty Fed and silenced his critics, but you can bet his top goal for 2012 is to win a singles gold medal, the only individual prize that has eluded him.
Federer, who doesn’t own any medal in singles, doesn’t want to remain in the “greatest players never to win a singles gold medal” club, which includes Pete Sampras, Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams, Ivan Lendl, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg, Novak Djokovic, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova.
While a gold medal won this century keeps increasing in value, it’s fair to say not all Grand Slam tournaments are valued equally. While some players may cherish a Wimbledon title more than an Olympic gold, far fewer would take an Australian title over a gold medal. Opinions vary about the French and US Opens. Specifically, Europeans consider Paris more prestigious than Flushing Meadows, and Americans would disagree. What isn’t debatable is that gold medals possess such great value because they are rare—16 major titles are contested for every Olympics. Top 50 players may get three chances in their careers, if they’re healthy and are selected.
National pride also factors heavily into the equation for many players, tennis associations, fervent media and patriotic fans. When No. 133-ranked Jie Zheng stunned everyone by making the 2008 Wimbledon semifinals, the headline in a Chinese newspaper read: “Wimbledon semifinal greatly enhances your Olympics preparation.” Put differently, the message was: Nice going Jie Zheng, but what really matters is the Beijing Games and we expect you to excel there.
The WTA Tour has some catching up and explaining to do. It awards only an insulting 685 and 470 ranking points to gold and silver medalists, respectively, compared to 2,000 and 1,400 ranking points for the champion and finalist, respectively at Grand Slam events.
After falling to Federer in the Wimbledon final and disappointing British fans again, world No. 4 Andy Murray said he is “desperate” to win an Olympic gold medal at the All England Club. “I think a gold medal is the pinnacle of every sport. Novak Djokovic won a bronze medal at the last Olympics and was in tears,” asserted Murray. Serena Williams says the gold medal she won playing doubles with her sister Venus at the Sydney Olympics is “my favorite thing I have” and the only award she shows off to friends.
Imagine what winning the gold would mean to Djokovic and Serbia, a recent tennis powerhouse despite its small population. A Sharapova triumph would give hyper-nationalistic Russia something more to brag about. Dream on, players.
How important is a tennis gold medal?
Andre Agassi, who boasts a career Grand Slam and a gold medal at the Atlanta Games, summed it up best: “To win a Grand Slam [title] is the greatest thing in the sport, but to win an Olympics is the biggest thing you can do in all sports.”
Feature Copyright 2012 by Paul Fein
Paul Fein has received more than 30 writing awards and authored three books, Tennis Confidential: Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies; You Can Quote Me on That: Greatest Tennis Quips, Insights, and Zingers; and Tennis Confidential II: More of Today’s Greatest Players, Matches, and Controversies. Fein is also a USPTA-certified teaching pro and coach with a Pro-1 rating, former director of theSpringfield (Mass.) Satellite Tournament, a former top 10-ranked men’s open New England tournament player and No. 1-ranked Super Senior player inNew England.