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Wednesday, August 13, 2008
If Federer and Nadal fell in the woods …


Have you been watching the tennis at the Olympics? I have to confess that I've caught only a few games here and there. I haven't set my DVR for it, the way I did on Sunday for the final of a relatively minor ATP event -- the Countrywide Classic -- and the way I have every evening for the Olympic swimming, a sport I know nothing about and will completely ignore for the next four years.

This isn't because I don't care about who wins or what happens. This year the top players have been more committed than ever to the event and have given it something approaching Grand Slam-level significance for the first time. It was surprising and exciting to see the pros treated like rock stars when they paraded through the opening ceremonies.

So what happened after that? Why have I not checked the men's or women's draws since the event began, yet it's suddenly crucial to me that a squeaky-voiced, 16-year-old girl whose name I won't remember next week doesn't lose her grip on the uneven bars? Why did I make a point of staying up late to watch two skinny guys from Indonesia play badminton instead of staying up for Rafael Nadal?

The Olympics are, if nothing else, a testament to the eternal power of hype -- NBC spent untold billions on advertising for the Games -- so how can we not watch? On a less cynical level, the Olympics are also a testament to the power of context. It isn't just tennis that's diminished by the Olympic surroundings. The world's most popular sport, soccer, is going on somewhere in Beijing as well. The format may be similar to the World Cup, but the excitement level? Not so much.

This isn't a shock or a disaster. The Olympics are compelling precisely because we won't see any of these people or these sports again for four years. The gold medal is their Holy Grail, the same way a Grand Slam is for everyone who has ever picked up a tennis racket. And we'll see Federer and Nadal in New York again in two weeks, in a context we can understand: Arthur Ashe Stadium.

What's surprising is how few people in China seem to care. Where did that country's impending tennis boom go? The facility is 45 minutes away from the major arenas, but on TV it looks like it could be on Mars. The players seem grateful to have their families or friends show up. What happens on Sunday if Federer and Nadal play another "Greatest Match of All Time" and no one is there to watch it?

In theory, this shouldn't be a problem at the London Games four years from now. The tennis will be held inside its mecca, the All England Club. You can't have a more appropriate stage than that. Or can you? Again, context will be the issue. I have a hard time imagining myself wanting to watch Olympic tennis on Centre Court, either. The building will be the same, but it won't be Wimbledon -- that word, even more than the setting, is what makes the tournament special.

No matter how long tennis remains in the Olympics or how many of the top players compete, "gold medal" will never be synonymous with the sport the way "Grand Slam" is. For that reason alone, we won't need to watch it.