Commentary

Daunting logistical obstacles between Beijing and the U.S. Open

Nearly every top-echelon player will make the pilgrimage to the Beijing Olympics. But with the quadrennial event crunched into an already taxing tennis calendar, it could spell doom for many at the U.S. Open.

Updated: July 31, 2008, 4:07 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Roger Federer AP Photo/Elise AmendolaAlready mired in a dispirited season, Roger Federer hopes there will be no residual effects at the U.S. Open after a wearisome travel schedule.
Anne Worcester finds herself between a rock (the Beijing Olympics) and a hard place (the U.S. Open), but -- always a trouper -- she's trying to make the best of it.

"It's exciting," the Pilot Pen tournament director said last week via her off-the-hook cell phone. "It's almost like having two Grand Slams this summer. This is the most challenging, most unpredictable event we've ever had."

That's because the Olympic tournament has been shoehorned into an already loaded global professional tennis calendar. New Haven (Conn.) is the only significant tournament (there is a Tier IV women's event at Forest Hills) between the two looming majors. The calendar compression has already created some congestion around the Euro Slams, amid player grumbling, and in the coming weeks we'll see the full effects of the storm.

While tennis fans will get compelling, once-every-four-years bonus tennis, the players -- particularly the successful ones -- face some daunting logistical obstacles.

"It will be a difficult transition," said Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain from his USTA office in White Plains, N.Y. "It'll be a lot like getting back to the Tour after a week of Davis Cup.

"In reality, you're probably talking about two to four players on each side. I always say I'd rather have players a little tired but full of confidence than a fresh player who doesn't have any confidence."

On paper, the schedule lays out nicely. Matches begin at the Olympic tennis center in Beijing on Sunday, Aug. 10. The men's and women's singles draws each feature 64 athletes, joined by 32 doubles teams. The women's final is Saturday, Aug. 16, with the men's final the next day. The U.S. Open runs from Aug. 25 to Sept. 7 at the National Tennis Center in Flushing, N.Y.

The narrowest margin would be for a gold-medal finalist teeing it up eight days later in New York. Beijing is 12 hours ahead of New York, so one of the many 14-hour direct flights added by Air China will take little effective time at all. The typical player in the final would leave Beijing on Monday -- and arrive in New York on Monday.

But how long will it take those athletes to recover? Olympics are usually hot, unpredictable and emotionally taxing affairs. Beijing's air-quality issues have left some athletes apprehensive.

"The travel for most players would be Europe, States, Beijing, States," said Jim Curley, the U.S. Open tournament director. "Realistically, it'll take a few days with the time change for men and women to adjust. But that's plenty of time. Look at the Australian Open. If they're not playing an event the week before, that's about when they get there."

Even in the best of circumstances, those top players might find themselves a bit weary -- certainly at a disadvantage to the players who make the long trip earlier.

Or not at all.

Four of the men ranked among the top 20 -- Andy Roddick (No. 6), Richard Gasquet (No. 11), Fernando Verdasco (No. 13) and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (No. 18) -- and four of the top 20 women -- Anna Chakvetadze (No. 9), Marion Bartoli (No. 15), Nadia Petrova (No. 17) and Maria Kirilenko (No. 20) -- will not be playing in the Olympics for a variety of personal and injury reasons.

Roddick has drawn the most attention and, on the front side, it looks like a shrewd move. After leading the U.S. Davis Cup team to its first title in a dozen years in 2007, Roddick's patriotism is unassailable. Seeded No. 2 in Athens four years ago, Roddick lost in the third round.

"It was probably one of the most difficult decisions I've had to make in my career," Roddick said last week in Toronto. "You normally don't have to choose between two huge events.

"My decision had nothing to do with lack of respect for the Olympics or anything like that. I completely am the biggest fan of it, and I'll be a huge fan watching at home. It had to do more with, at the end of my career, I want to have been making runs in Slams."

Roddick, whose only major career title is the 2003 U.S. Open, has reached three other Grand Slam finals but none in the past two years. He turns 26 at the end of August and, with the emergence of Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, this might be his best remaining chance to win a second title.

McEnroe, two months into his new job as the USTA's general manager of elite player development, isn't sure how it will turn out.

"He put a lot of years, a lot of energy and effort, into Davis Cup," McEnroe said. "Quite honestly, those sacrifices don't help his ranking. This is his chance to make a run.

[+] EnlargeAndy Roddick
AP/The Canadian Press/Aaron HarrisAndy Roddick hopes his decision to eschew the Beijing Olympics will pay dividends at the U.S. Open.
"Hopefully, he'll start to find his game this week and get a lot of matches in. In the years he's done best at the Open, he's won a lot of matches coming in."

Fellow American Mardy Fish, who is ranked No. 40 and won a silver medal for singles in Athens, will be joining Roddick in his Olympic boycott. So will Tommy Haas, ranked No. 42, who won a silver in 2000 in Sydney.

Tennis was included when the modern Olympics began in 1886, but was gone after Paris in 1924. Sixty years later, it returned as a demonstration sport in Los Angeles and was fully reinstated in Seoul in 1988. Czechoslovakia's Miloslav Mecir and Germany's Steffi Graf were the gold medalists.

Compared to Grand Slams, Olympic tennis has been less than memorable. Can you remember who beat Fish and Haas in their gold-medal matches? Nicolas Massu of Chile defeated Fish four years ago in a five-set match, while Justine Henin was the women's winner. Russia's Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Venus Williams were singles winners in 2000.

Roger Federer is hoping to become the first player to win a gold medal while being ranked No. 1.

"If maybe I am a player who doesn't have any Grand Slams, maybe a Grand Slam would still do more for my career," Federer said in Toronto. "But because I have 12 already, for me an Olympic gold ranks as high, you know?

"I was very proud to represent the Swiss in the 2000 Olympics, and really just missed that -- very close on the medal. And like last time, was quite disappointing losing the second round [to Tomas Berdych]. So as long as I can walk and play, I will always come and play the Olympics."

By this time of year, Worcester usually has a pretty good idea of how her men's and women's fields shape up. Three weeks before the first serve in New Haven, she has no idea. Still, that's not a bad thing.

Worcester would not be terribly disappointed if some of the Pilot Pen's regulars from years past -- such as Venus Williams or Nikolay Davydenko or James Blake -- lost early in Beijing.

"Everyone can't get to the final of the Olympics," Worcester said, citing all the upsets at Wimbledon. "I know this: 32 players in women's draw and 32 in the men's draw are going to lose in the first round.

"That's just how it works."

Whether the stressed tennis calendar works remains to be seen.

"There's no doubt from a player perspective that the 2008 calendar is not the best calendar out there," Curley said. "It's a real challenge for them to meet all of their commitments.

"But as far as when they get to New York, we're confident everyone will be fine."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.