Commentary

Is Olympic tennis high-powered competition or fun in the sun?

In most sports, the Olympics present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an athlete to be a national hero. Tennis, however, is failing to take advantage of the camaraderie the Games offer and consequently marginalizing the buildup to the U.S. Open, writes Joel Drucker.

Updated: August 5, 2008, 11:39 AM ET
By Joel Drucker | Special to ESPN.com

FlagsAP Photo / Andy WongUnlike most other Olympic sports, tennis is palpably an individual competition.

Enduring consequence is a major factor in determining the significance of any event. Certainly, that's true in tennis, in which such recent occurrences as Rafael Nadal's wins over Roger Federer at Roland Garros and Wimbledon likely will be remembered for years to come as the major story of 2008.

In the coming weeks, athletes from track and gymnastics will compete in Beijing for the highest stakes for possibly the only time in their careers.

Tennis' place in the Olympics, though, is rather muddled.

The good news is that since tennis' return to the Olympics in 1988 after a 64-year exile, its presence has greatly aided the sport's growth in dozens of countries. Since 1988, 58 nations have joined the International Tennis Federation. "When tennis became an Olympic sport, it became part of the sports programs of a great many countries," said Paul Smith, executive director of Olympic tennis and an employee of the ITF.

There is no question, for example, that tennis' status as an Olympic sport motivated many medal-happy Russians to play tennis. Such current pros as Svetlana Kuznetsova and Nadia Petrova are children of former Olympians.

For the first time, the Olympic tennis event is offering ATP and WTA ranking points. The men's gold medalist will receive 400 points, less than a Masters Series tournament win. The women's winner will get 353 points, a bit more than the victor of a Tier II tournament such as the recently completed stop in Carson, Calif.

But considering how much of the Olympics revolves around teamwork, it's beguiling that the tennis event is held strictly as a conventional tournament. There is little sense that competitors are part of a squad, little of the camaraderie that marks the Olympics or such team competitions as the Davis Cup, Fed Cup and Hopman Cup. When Roger Federer closes out a game in Beijing, the umpire will not say, "Game, Switzerland," but, just as at tour stops, "First set, Federer."

Another unfortunate consequence is how much the Olympics have eroded the buildup to the U.S. Open. A series of Olympus U.S. Open Series tournaments have seen their fields gutted, as such players as Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Maria Sharapova and others have either withdrawn or committed to minimal playing schedules in North America. Although the top 50 men are automatically entered in the ATP's Tennis Masters events in Toronto and Cincinnati, tournaments that take place before or after in Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., have been severely marginalized by shallow fields and withdrawals. Such erosion will occur every four years.

While long-standing tournaments in long-standing tennis communities wither, the Olympic tennis event will boast a deep field -- 17 of the top 20 men, 18 of the top 20 women. One major attraction is that many tennis players are eager to be part of a grand sporting festival and hang out with athletes from other sports. Said one former pro, "It's in many ways more of a perk than a tournament. It's interesting to see how many players do it once and then don't come back."

And although the athletes certainly are eager to compete, at heart, the Olympic tennis event is by and large the exact opposite of what it is for all the other athletes coming to Beijing: a no-lose competition with no negative downside. Athletes from track and field, gymnastics and others will be crushed by any failure in Beijing. Not so for tennis players, most of whom will leave with happy memories and new e-mail pals.

Defending the existing format, Smith said, "It's what players are used to playing. You want to make players feel comfortable playing." Smith and the ITF also believe a team-based event would take too long to complete and that not enough nations could participate.

World Team Tennis CEO Ilana Kloss begs to differ. She believes the Olympics would be a natural fit for WTT's quick format. Said Kloss: "Tennis is missing an unbelievable opportunity to showcase itself. Our sport is unique: Men and women can compete together, as part of a team. An international, co-ed Olympic event would take tennis to another level."

Kloss' Olympic vision calls for both a singles tournament -- which would accommodate countries that might not be able to field teams -- and a team-based event. "Tennis should be a highlight of the Olympics," Kloss said. "Our sport is international, with world-famous stars."

[+] EnlargeRoger Federer
AP Photo/Aaron HarrisLost in the maelstrom of Roger Federer's dispirited season is the fact that he is playing not just for redemption but also for his home country of Switzerland.
Indeed, the notion, of, say, an Olympic gold medal coming down to a mixed doubles match between the team of Venus Williams and James Blake versus Ana Ivanovic and Novak Djokovic would add a whole new twist.

Kloss and WTT approached the ITF with the idea a number of years ago but encountered minimal acceptance. She also said that if such a format were to be adapted, WTT would streamline its own season during Olympic years to make more room on the tennis schedule. In 1984, the year tennis was a test sport at that year's Games, WTT's season lasted only one week.

Smith said that although the team approach has been mentioned, it's hardly relevant to the ITF's vision of tennis in the Olympics. "We're pleased with the position we're in at the moment," he said.

Then again, as anyone with the slightest connection to tennis knows, it's not the first time the sport has been clouded by good intentions and conflicting agendas.

Joel Drucker is based in Oakland, Calif., and writes for Tennis Magazine and Tennis Channel.