Andy Roddick is familiar with the spoils that come with being a
top tennis player: a U.S. Open title, No. 1 ranking, more than $6.5
million in prize money, endorsement deals.
Funny how a $20 T-shirt got him all pumped up. Not just any
shirt, mind you. One emblazoned with the Olympic rings and "USA
Team 2004'' in light blue lettering.
"All along, I kind of knew I was going to be on the team,''
Roddick said. "But, you know, it's amazing how something as small
as a T-shirt makes it real.''
U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, doubling as the men's
Olympic tennis coach, was struck by the reactions he got when he
handed out the shirts after his roster was set during Wimbledon.
"I'm impressed at how excited our guys are. It's honestly all
they talk about,'' McEnroe said. "We gave them a T-shirt -- the
look on Andy Roddick's face this morning, Bob and Mike Bryan, they
were genuinely so excited about it. From that standpoint, that's a
great sign that having tennis back in the Olympics is really good
for the sport worldwide, overall.''
Most top players feel that way, giving the Aug. 15-22 tennis
competition at the Athens Games the feel of a Grand Slam
tournament. It probably helps that the ATP and WTA agreed to award
rankings points at the Olympics, and that the men play
best-of-three-set matches until the best-of-five final.
The Williams sisters will defend their Sydney Olympic titles
(Venus won the singles gold medal, and she paired with Serena for
the doubles gold). Wimbledon champion Roger Federer, three-time
French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten and Tim Henman are signed up,
as are Justine Henin-Hardenne, Jennifer Capriati and Amelie
It's a U.S. Open tuneup of sorts, with the same type of hard
courts that will be used at Flushing Meadows starting Aug. 30.
That should give Roddick and his powerful serve an edge.
"Yes, it's a packed summer, there's no doubt. But it's the
Olympic Games. Someone's going to have to drag me off the court not
to play there,'' said Roddick, 27-1 on the summer hard-court
circuit in 2003. "My ultimate goal in tennis was the U.S. Open,
but I want that gold medal. I definitely would cherish it just as
much as a Grand Slam title.''
Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic.
There are security questions, of course. And then there are
those such as 2000 U.S. Open champion Marat Safin, who thinks his
sport doesn't belong in the Summer Games to begin with.
"The Olympics is not for tennis. Tennis doesn't need the
Olympic Games,'' Safin said. "We have four Grand Slams. We have a
lot of tournaments. We have a pretty tough schedule.''
He showed up in Sydney about 24 hours before his opener at the
2000 Olympics -- and promptly lost.
So why is Safin going to Athens?
"I have to play for Russia. Because I have to,'' he said. "But
it is not my goal in my life to win the Olympic Games. I'm not
excited at all to go there.''
Among the top players skipping the trip to Greece: Andre Agassi
(at 34, he limits his schedule), Lindsay Davenport (she already
owns a medal and had security concerns), Kim Clijsters (she pulled
out because she wouldn't have been able to wear her sponsor's
clothing, but recent wrist surgery probably would have sidelined
her anyway), and her fiance, Lleyton Hewitt.
Another notable absentee: Maria Sharapova.
Olympic tennis team entries were due a few days before Sharapova
won Wimbledon to jump into the top 10. So Russia's squad is made up
of women ranked ahead of her at the deadline: French Open champion
Anastasia Myskina, French Open runner-up Elena Dementieva, Svetlana
Kuznetsova and Nadia Petrova.
That would be quite a formidable foursome for a team competition
like the Davis Cup or Fed Cup. But the Olympics are set up just
like any single-elimination tennis tournament.
McEnroe, for one, is a proponent of changing the format to make
it more of a team event. Whatever the logistics of it, Federer is
eager to try to gain a medal for Switzerland, four years after
losing the match for the singles bronze.
"Representing your country is very different from basically
representing your name in a tournament,'' Federer said. "What I
experienced in Sydney in 2000 was, for me, one of the best two
weeks I've ever had in my career.''
That's saying a lot, coming from a three-time major champion who
overtook Roddick for the No. 1 ranking in February.
They could reprise their rivalry at Athens, playing for a gold
medal just seven weeks after meeting in the first No. 1 vs. No. 2
Wimbledon final since 1982.
Perhaps someone will derail that, such as David Nalbandian, an
excellent returner who gives Roddick and Federer trouble. Or a
serve-and-volleyer such as Henman or Mark Philippoussis. Or a truly
surprising winner could emerge, such as Marc Rosset in 1992.
And maybe an Olympic rookie will claim a medal.
How about Martina Navratilova, headed to the Summer Games for
the first time at age 47?
"That's why I really played one more year,'' said Navratilova,
who'll play doubles with Lisa Raymond. "It wasn't to play
Wimbledon one more time, it was to play the Olympics.''