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Olympic Dreams: One year to go

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Originally published on: 29/07/11 13:13

Hold the front page: Wimbledon is to abandon its predominantly-white cloting rule.

Yes, you did read that right. Players will be allowed to wear any colour of tennis clothing at the venerable All England Club, as long as it’s recognisable tennis attire. But there’s a catch. The new clothing regulations will apply only from 28 July – 5 August 2012 for the Olympic tennis event, which will be staged at Wimbledon for the first time since 1908. The All England Club will hand over its premises to the Olympics during this period which means certain club rules will be suspended, giving ‘Wimbledon’ a very different look. It’s not only the clothing rule – Centre Court will be decked out in Olympic colours, and will display the iconic Olympic rings and the London 2012 logo.  

It also means a different regime for the grass, although the club is confident that the famous turf will be able to withstand another eight days of intense pounding just three weeks after the Wimbledon Championships end. 

The manager of the London Olympic tennis event is Clare Wood, the former British No.1 who played on Centre Court during her career. “It will be different to the Championships,” she says, “but it’ll still be a great event, not just for the spectators, but also for the players, who I hope enjoy playing at Wimbledon as part of the Olympics rather than ‘just’ a tennis tournament.” Wood says it still isn’t entirely clear how the Olympic rings and London 2012 logo will appear on the courts, but has ruled out rugby-pitch-style paint behind the baselines. Tickets will be available solely through the Olympic website, and only available on the day if any are unsold, which may well not be the case. 

Tennis hasn’t always been in the Olympics though. It was one of the founding sports but in 1924, the tennis and Olympic communities had a spat, the tennis family taking its ball away after it was banished to what it considered sub-standard courts on the edge of Paris for that year’s Games. For half a century, the two groups stood in isolation, until the late 1970s when a rapprochement based around mutual interest took place. 

The initiator was Philippe Chatrier, the French player-turned-administrator who became president of the International Tennis Federation (ITF) in 1976. Chatrier and his British general secretary David Gray recognised that if tennis was to grow, it needed funding from governments and sports foundations. And if it was to get that funding, it needed to be part of the Olympics. 

Chatrier was fortunate that his presidency of the ITF coincided with Juan-Antonio Samaranch’s period as IOC president. The Catalan was not only a tennis fan, but could see the advantages of having tennis back in the Olympic family. He agreed to a test event in 1984 when two juniors, Sweden’s Stefan Edberg and Germany’s Steffi Graf, won gold in Los Angeles, and tennis was readmitted as a full Olympic sport in Seoul in 1988, where Graf and Miloslav Mecir won the singles. 

It took a while before tennis felt fully back in the Olympic fold, but the benefits have become increasingly apparent over the past 20 years. Many players on today’s tour can thank Olympic funding for their progress, and when in February this year the WTA announced a new first – a top 10 featuring players from 10 different countries across four continents – tennis’s return to the Olympics could claim a share of that achievement. 

The benefits to the Olympics of having tennis back in its family were in evidence in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics three years ago. The biggest throngs of cameramen and photographers at Beijing airport were for the arrivals of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Nadal arrived almost at the same time as Michael Phelps. The American swimmer had still to win his eight gold medals, but he was already an Olympic superstar, yet was trumped by Nadal among the snappers. 

There are still those who believe tennis doesn’t belong in the Games. Their argument is generally based on the fact that the Olympics isn’t the highlight of a four-year cycle, the way it is in sports like athletics and swimming. The argument holds some water, but in the two decades tennis has been back in the Olympic fold, the value of medals has risen sharply. 

The Olympics is tennis’s great leveller, making tennis players into sportsmen and women. Superstars who are well acquainted with five-star hotels are suddenly rubbing shoulders with equally big fish from different ponds in the Olympic Village. There’s a story from the 2004 Olympics in which Federer, by then twice a Wimbledon champion, found himself chatting with a New Zealand athlete in the village restaurant. She introduced herself and then asked him what he did. “I’m Roger, I play tennis,” was his reply. It wouldn’t happen on the tour!  The first men’s gold medallist of the professional era, Mecir, summed it up neatly by saying, “I think the satisfaction of winning was more as a sportsman than as a tennis player. I can’t say I’d change it for a Wimbledon title, but the Olympics was something else.” 

The role of nationalities in the Olympic format means not all the top players are guaranteed entry, however. The singles draws feature 64 players, of which 56 are decided by ranking. But in recent years, only four players per country have been allowed to compete in a specific draw, so players ranked fifth or sixth from a nation with great strength in depth like Spain or France may not travel. The remaining places are often given to players from nations who are largely under-represented at the Olympics, including two ‘tripartite’ wildcards chosen by the IOC, national Olympic committees and the ITF. With mixed doubles in the Olympics next year for the first time since 1924, there are at least a few more slots for tennis players to become Olympians. 

Players also have to be in good standing with their national associations, having made themselves available to represent their country in at least two of the four years leading up to 2012, one of which has to be 2011 or 2012.  That’s why this year will see a number of players showing up for Davis Cup and Fed Cup ties. 

Such is the value of an Olympic medal that players carrying a mild injury frequently pull out of the singles to enhance their chances of winning in doubles, something unheard of on the tour. In fact, the Olympic doubles events are arguably the best doubles tournaments in this era, as they bring out the world’s best players, such as the reigning men’s champions, Federer and fellow Swiss Stanislas Wawrinka. 

That’s why the Olympics will be tennis with a difference when Wimbledon opens its famous gates three weeks after the 2012 Championships end. It really will be a very special eight days indeed in the quadrennial tennis calendar.

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