After the drama of Wimbledon, we usually have to wait twelve long months to see the leading players gracing the grass of SW19 again. Players head off for European clay court tournaments and the North American hard court swing, leaving the green grass of London behind. However, this is no normal year, and in less than two weeks, the big names will be back to compete for the rarest of titles in tennis – an Olympic gold medal.
Since tennis was reintroduced as an Olympic event in Seoul, back in 1988, there have been six players that have stood on the top step of the podium – Miloslav Mecir (1988), Marc Rosset (1992), Andre Agassi (1996), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (2000), Nicolas Massu (2004) and Rafael Nadal (2008).
The interesting thing about this list is that only three of these ever won a Grand Slam title. Indeed, neither Marc Rosset or Nicolas Massu even reached a Grand Slam final in their careers. In the same time, only two of the six losing finalists had made a Grand Slam final – Sergi Bruguera and Fernando Gonzalez.
With the gold medal only up for grabs every four years, we might have expected to see the leading names targeting the title. Instead, we tend to see more shocks than we see in any other tournament. The format is certainly a reason for this – as opposed to Grand Slam best-of-five set matches, the Olympics is played in a best-of-three set format, except for the men’s final, that will have to be decided in best of five sets.’
This reduces the margin for error for the leading players and works to level the playing field. No longer do players have to win three sets against the top seeds to progress. Now, simply winning one set will at least give you the chance to upset any of the top players.
There is also greater pressure on the top seeds. While there is always pressure, there is always the belief that if you lose, you will be back next year to challenge again. At the Olympics, you know that you must wait four long years if you are to challenge again.
So, that brings us to the main question – who is going to win the coveted gold medal?
After his performance at Wimbledon, Roger Federer must undoubtedly be one of the leading names, particularly if the miserable British summer continues and the roof is utilised. His performances in the last three matches against Youzhny, Djokovic and Murray were vintage Federer – a reminder that there is nothing more dangerous than writing off arguably the greatest player of all time.
However, the worry is that he can throw in the odd poor set or two early on in tournaments these days. He was only two points from being eliminated by Julien Benneteau at Wimbledon. At the French Open, he dropped sets to David Goffin, Nicolas Mahut and Adrian Ungur, as well as having to come from 2-0 down against Juan Martin Del Potro.
In a best-of-five Grand Slam match, it is straight-forward enough for a player of his quality to overcome dropping a set. In an Olympic match, it is far more hazardous. If it had been the Olympics, Benneteau would have beaten him in straight-sets.
There are also doubts over the reigning Olympic champion, Rafael Nadal. I would be tempted to ignore the result against Lukas Rosol – it was a performance the likes of which will probably not be seen again for a good few years.
The bigger worry is his fitness. He has already pulled out of a charity exhibition match against Novak Djokovic at the Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, citing a need to rest his knees ahead of the Olympics. A long, albeit successful, clay-court swing took a lot out of him, and come the Olympics, it will be interesting to see what shape he is in. Come the first round, he will have only played four matches in seven weeks – plenty of rest, but questions must be raised over his match fitness.
That brings us to the pair of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. In comparison to last year, Djokovic’s year looks average, although most players would be happy with a Grand Slam title, a Masters title and a further three finals. At Wimbledon, he looked the most comfortable of any of the top players before running into Federer under the roof, and if the weather holds up, it would be difficult to see beyond the Serb adding a gold medal to his collection.
Andy Murray finally won a set in a Grand Slam final and, but for the roof, could have gone on and won his first Grand Slam title. Regardless, he will take the confidence into the Olympics that he can go all the way. Desperate to banish memories of the disastrous 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he lost in the first round to Yen-Hsun Lu, he will certainly be a danger.
However, based on past history, it would be no surprise to see an unexpected finalist. The two players to keep an eye on would be Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Tomas Berdych. Tsonga is a two-time Wimbledon semi-finalist, while Tomas Berdych reached the final back in 2010. With their big-hitting game, if they get into a groove, they are both capable of taking out the big-names. Particularly over three sets.
What of the other potential surprises?
David Ferrer demonstrated how much his grass court game has improved when he lost to Andy Murray in what was probably the best match of the entire tournament. However, the three set format might suit him less, as it somewhat negates the fitness and stamina advantage he holds over the rest of the players.
The next tier sees the likes of Janko Tipsarevic, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Marin Cilic. All players who have achieved success on grass before, all with strong serves, and all with an outside chance of causing a stir.
The big-servers, such as John Isner and Milos Raonic, will also be fancied in some quarters. However, neither have particularly impressive grass court records, and it would be a surprise were they to reach the later stages of the games.
To conclude, as always, it is difficult to see beyond one of the Big Four winning the gold medal. Simply looking at Grand Slams and Masters tournaments, it was 2010 when an outsider to that group last lifted the trophy – Robin Soderling in Paris.
However, history would suggest that the Olympics can often throw up a surprise or two. One only needs to look at the last edition – James Blake eliminated Roger Federer; fourth seed Nikolay Davydenko crashed out to Paul-Henri Mathieu; Yen-Hsun Lu beat Andy Murray.
Contradictory as it sounds, while it would be no surprise to see one of the top four on the top step of the podium, we should not be stunned if there are a few unexpected names competing at the sharp end of the tournament.