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Friday, July 11, 2008
Olympic tennis has it's own challenges and rewards

The Olympic Games tennis event is a glorious oddity. To most of the players, especially the ones from smaller nations, Olympic gold is the Grail. The "national hero" status that comes along with a medal performance ensures that, for the majority of the world's best tennis players, a medal-earning performance at the Olympic Games is easily the equal of winning a Grand Slam event at every level, including earning potential.

But let's remember that the format of the Olympic tennis event, which will take place Aug. 10-17 in Beijing, is sufficiently different to make comparisons with a major in most other respects a case of apples versus oranges.

Let's start with the draw: The field is 56 -- that's less than half that of a major (which has 128 with no byes). The eight top seeds at the Olympics will have first-round byes, allowing the field to be whittled down to 32 before they step onto the court. So the finalists will play just five matches (instead of the Grand Slam standard of 7). On the other hand, Olympians will have to squeeze those five matches into a week (at the two-week majors, the players only play on alternate days, weather permitting). So it's more accurate to compare Olympic tennis to a Masters Series event.

The entry system is different too, and not entirely merit-based (as are the standard ATP and WTA Tour entry regimens). Each country is limited to four players, meaning that tennis-rich nations Spain, Russia and France can field fewer dangerous players. Spain's Fernando Verdasco and three men from Wimbledon's most recent final eight, Arnaud Clement (France), Marat Safin (Russia), and Rainer Schuettler (Germany), did not qualify for direct entry. Furthermore, the nations are guaranteed that no quarter of the draw will hold more than one player from a given nation.

While these rules eliminate some dangerous players and suggest that we might see fewer major upsets, tennis in the Olympics is usually all about upsets and unexpected performances. Marc Rosset of Switzerland beat Andrei Cherkasov in the finals in Barcelona; most recently, it was Nicolas Massu over American Mardy Fish in Athens. Because Olympic tennis is a one-off event held every four years, the usual pecking order doesn't apply, and of-the-moment inspiration -- and opportunism -- is the rule rather than the exception. How else do you explain Tomas Berdych's win over Roger Federer in the Athens Games in 2004?

Look at the Agassi family for the perfect snapshot of the joys and perils of tennis at the five-ring circus. Andre won the gold in Atlanta, and while he is undoubtedly a Grand Slam tennis icon, he made his surprising Olympics run in Atlanta in 1996 -- when he was in the midst of a career-threatening swoon. By contrast, Agassi's wife, Steffi Graf, won gold in Seoul, South Korea, to become the only player in history to complete a "Golden Slam" -- adding the top Olympic medal to her sweep of the tennis majors in 1988.

Lindsay Davenport and Stefan Edberg handled the pressure well and won Olympic gold, but the bottom line is that the tennis event at the Olympics is usually a wild, wooly, riveting and unpredictable event. You can expect plenty of surprise performances, which will make the event exciting; but it will not represent the status quo in the game.

Of course, top players who get bounced out of Beijing early will have some consolation. With the U.S. Open coming hard on the heels of the Olympics, the players who go deep in Beijing will have very little time to rest and recharge before Flushing Meadow begins.

But for most of them, the emotional high and prestige of bagging Olympic gold or silver will far outweigh the risk of not living up to their U.S. Open seedings. After all, Grand Slam events happen every year, but a player rarely has a shot at making more than two or three appearances at the Olympic Games. That also increases the pressure at the Olympics -- and the reward for winning as well.