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Tuesday, August 12, 2008
In Beijing, medals are enough

Ask the world's top tennis players why they are competing in this year's Olympic Games in Beijing, and you'll receive your standard replies about honoring one's country, competing alongside the best athletes in the world and enjoying life in the hectic Olympic village. No one will mention ranking points.

Yet at these Games, the gold-medal winners will receive almost as many points as they would for winning a tournament just below the level of a Grand Slam. For the men, gold is worth 400 points, 100 fewer than the winner receives at a Masters Series event like the two played earlier this summer in Toronto and Cincinnati. It's almost half what the winner of the U.S. Open will collect. For the women, gold brings 353 points, compared to 430 for a premiere event like the Rogers Cup in Montreal and 1,000 for a major title.

Tennis was one of the nine original sports at the 1896 Olympics in Athens, but it doesn't have an Olympic tradition. From 1924 to 1988, tennis either did not appear or was a demonstration sport. Only recently has the sport begun to offer ranking points for those who attend the Games (the men first received points at the 2000 Games in Sydney, the women at the 2004 Games in Athens).

The argument for awarding points is simple: Without them, the best athletes won't commit to the Games. This is nonsense. I take players at their word that the Olympics mean a lot more to them than a chance to pick up points. Did any of you see Rafael Nadal laughing and bouncing around like a 10-year-old at Disney World during the Beijing Opening Ceremonies? He wasn't dancing for ranking points; even without these Games, he'll be the No. 1 player in the world first thing Monday morning. Does anyone believe Roger Federer would have refused to carry Switzerland's flag if not for a chance at a few hundred ranking points (even though, these days, he desperately needs to stockpile as many as he can)? No chance. Federer is out for gold, one of the few things he hasn't won on a tennis court. Both of these men, and most of the other top singles players, are playing doubles, too, even though those ranking points won't improve their standings in singles. The same goes for Venus Williams and Serena Williams, who won their doubles match in three sets Tuesday. Jelena Jankovic is playing despite an injury. Ana Ivanovic flew to Beijing with a bad thumb and tried to play before withdrawing at the last minute. The list goes on and on.

The Olympics do not offer prize money because cash awards, the theory goes, would taint the spirit of the Games. Ranking points do the same thing. Most of the athletes at the Games receive little attention and don't earn anywhere near as much money in a season as top tennis players do. The best in tennis are already richer and more popular than the vast majority of their Olympic peers. Why should they earn a bonus for attending?

Perhaps the strangest thing about the decision to offer ranking points is that today's tennis players wouldn't care if none were on the line, at least not enough to complain about it or withdraw from the event. Andy Roddick skipped the Olympics to prepare for the U.S. Open, and nothing was going to make him attend, just as nothing would have caused Nadal or Federer to miss the Games. Tennis players are not as selfish -- and obsessed with points and prize money -- as many people might think. The Olympics are meaningful enough to attract them without extra incentive.