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Beijing Olympics 2008: Tennis and the Games

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Originally published on: 26/02/10 14:28

Athletics, gymnastics, and swimming these are the sports that have arguably become most synonymous with the modern Olympic Games.

But tennis? Hardly.

Its difficult to see just where tennis fits into the Citius, Fortius, Altius ethos of the Olympic motto. The issue divides the tennis world and defenders of Olympic ideals.

The reason that athletics and the likes are such popular events at the Games is that winning an Olympic gold represents the pinnacle of their careers, often the culmination of their lifes work.

Until now, the Olympics have been a professional tennis perk…

Tennis features four career-defining Grand Slams a year, and while other professional sports with their own blue-riband events, such as football, have imposed age limits to maintain the integrity of the competition, the ITF enforces no such rules, leaving entry – and rights to refusal – to the top players.

However, many of those same players will have an eye on the US Open, which this year starts just eight days after the mens gold medal match: a calendar clash that has brought the debate firmly into focus.

Beijing is 12 hours ahead of New York, so medallists boarding one of the many 14-hour direct flights on Monday will effectively arrive in New York on Monday. No big problem there.

But it wont just be jetlag that players will have to recover from. The Olympics are an emotionally taxing affair, generally played in the heat of high summer to try and guarantee good weather.

Throw in Beijings air-quality issues, and the probability of playing both singles and doubles for your country, often the same day

Makes you tired just thinking about it.

Andy Roddick is perhaps the most prominent tennis player to opt out of the Games. “I’m really glad that I got to experience it, and really glad that I went,” Roddick said of the 2004 Games in Athens. “It’s one of the neatest things that I’ve done.

That being said, maybe let one of the other guys have the experience. At this point in my career, I’d like to put another major on the board, and that’s my focus.”

In contrast, Roger Federer is adamant that as long as I can walk and play, I will always come and play the Olympics.”

“If maybe I am a player who doesn’t have any Grand Slams, maybe a Grand Slam would still do more for my career,” Federer said in Toronto.

“But because I have 12 already, for me an Olympic gold ranks as high, you know?

And therein lies the rub. Until now, the Olympic tennis title even participating at the Olympics has been perceived by some as a bonus event, a professional tennis perk.

Look at the champions from Athens in 2004. Justine Henin claimed the gold for Belgium in the womens event, an undoubtedly worthy champion.

In the mens competition, Nicolas Massu beat Mardy Fish for the gold. Beyond that, Massus greatest tennis achievements were reaching world No.9 and reaching the Madrid Masters final in 2003. Hardly a world-beater by any means.

But that could be about to change. This year, players are so keen on the Olympic experience that 40 of them posed as athletes from other summer or winter sports as part of a promotional book for Olympic tennis.

Beijing could mark the tipping point for tennis at the Olympics…

Federer posed as a fencer. Ana Ivanovic posed on South Beach as a beach volleyball player. Nadal appears as a footballer (apparently all the lads wanted to, but Rafa got the gig), Novak Djokovic as a skier, Maria Sharapova as a rhythmic gymnast and Serena Williams as a figure skater because she likes the outfits.

More importantly, however, the entry list for the Beijing Games in both the mens and womens events is the strongest in Olympic history.

With only the top four nationals reaching the ITF qualifying standard eligible for the Games, the strength of the Russian womens squad meant world No.8 Dinara Safina had not made the squad, until Anna Chakvetadze withdrew, fulfilling her goal for the year.

“I put so much pressure to myself for the (Olympic) goal that I was travelling for almost three months and I couldn’t find my game,” Safina said. “Somehow in the last moment I qualified. I catch the last train.”

Should this widespread enthusiasm translate into a genuinely competitive tournament, Beijing could mark the tipping point for the worthy inclusion of tennis in the Olympic Games.

From shoe-horned Tour distraction to genuine fifth Slam status? We might know more in a couple of weeks

Now get the WORLD’S BEST TENNIS MAGAZINE here


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