Durability of Olympic champs to be tested
NEW YORK -- For Belgium's Justine Henin-Hardenne, who was forced to the sidelines for nearly four months after contracting a debilitating virus, the Olympics were energizing.
For Nicolas Massu of Chile, the men's singles and doubles gold medalist, the Olympics were an exhilarating yet draining experience. Massu played 11 matches in eight days. In the middle of the gold medal match against Mardy Fish of the United States, Massu started to feel "unbelievable tired. I cannot move my feet."
That was nine days, thousands of miles and several cultural evolutions ago. On Tuesday morning, Massu and Henin-Hardenne were back in action here at the U.S. Open, where they will need to win seven singles matches if they want to stand again at the top of the podium. For Henin-Hardenne, that would be 13 important matches in a span of 28 days. For Massu -- who is, against all logic, also entered in doubles with his partner Fernando Gonzalez -- the workload would be 18 matches, plus whatever the doubles draw yields.
The gold standard could well extract its own cruel price; "unbelievable tired" might not adequately describe that kind of potential wear and tear. In their first steps on the journey, both players looked a tad sluggish.
Henin-Hardenne, also the No. 1 player in the world and the defending U.S. Open champion, trailed Nicole Vaidisova 4-1 in the second set before rallying to a wind-swept 6-1, 6-4 win. The 15-year-old from the Czech Republic was playing her first Grand Slam match and lasted a credible 58 minutes. Massu started slowly, losing the first three games to Jose Acasuso, before winning 18 of the last 21 games and closing him out 6-4, 6-0, 6-2.
"Physically, I feel good," Massu said after Tuesday's win. "I had a very good win today. Fast, that is very important to me."
"I think coming here after Athens is not easy because it's been a lot of emotions there," Henin-Hardenne said. "It was my coming back. And then a week after, it's another big, big tournament.
"You need to stay focused and you need to go step by step -- forget about what happened last week."
Clearly, the competition in Athens inspired these athletes to Olympian heights. Amelie Mauresmo, who lost to Henin-Hardenne in the final, was happy with her silver medal. Fish seemed ecstatic with his silver.
"Underneath it all," Fish said, "a lot of people have been asking me, you know, what would you rather do: win a gold medal or win a Grand Slam? I would prefer a gold medal around my neck with the national anthem playing. I think that would be the ultimate in sports for me."
Alicia Molik of Australia said that her bronze medal-winning match was "probably the most pressure I've ever had to play under in my life. Finished fourth, I would have gone home with nothing."
American Taylor Dent also played for the bronze medal, but fell to Chile's Fernando Gonzalez 16-14 in the third set.
"I was proud of how I fought out there and competed," Dent said Monday after Younes El Aynaoui retired from their first-round match. "I don't know if I'll be able to play in Beijing in another four years, so I jumped on the opportunity, and felt like everybody in the field felt the same way I did. They were happy to be there and they wanted to be a part of it."
Not every player felt that way. Serena Williams, citing a chronic left knee injury, did not honor her commitment to play in Athens. Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport passed on the opportunity as well. Davenport withdrew from last week's Pilot Pen tournament in New Haven, complaining of tendinitis in her left wrist. After Capriati lost in the Pilot Pen quarterfinals to Nathalie Dechy -- whom she had beaten in all five previous matches -- she was brutally honest.
"I'm not saying this tournament is not important," Capriati said after the defeat. "But it's like you don't want to expend too much energy, especially when it's been such a long season. But you have to give credit to other players to take advantage of that, so you know the potential is there."
So, even with the U.S. Open looming, Dechy apparently was willing to expend the energy and -- based on her own words -- Capriati wasn't. It's worth noting that Dechy, the No. 28 seed, is not among the favorites here at the National Tennis Center. Therefore, she could afford to try her hardest to win in New Haven (she lost in the final to Elena Bovina) because she wasn't compromising a legitimate chance to win the U.S. Open. Capriati and Davenport, of course, are No. 8 and No. 5 seeds, respectively, and counted among a handful of players with a realistic chance to win.
The same is true on the men's side. Massu and Gonzalez hold the higher seeds (No. 10 and No. 14, respectively), but after all those singles and doubles matches in Athens, Dent (No. 21) and Fish (No. 26) probably stand a better chance of winning. Interestingly, the two highest-ranked men in the world -- Roger Federer and Andy Roddick -- lost in the second and third round of the Olympics to lesser players.
"With each player it's personal how big it is," Roddick said of the Olympics. "Some guys really don't care that much. I cared a lot. It's not the biggest thing in our sport, but it's the biggest thing in sports."
And that was the reaction in Chile, when Massu won the Olympic singles title and paired with Gonzalez for the doubles gold. They were the first two gold medals in this history of the Latin American country.
"I see some videos the last days from Chile," Massu said. "The people get a little bit crazy because they are very happy.
"Tennis now maybe going to be the most important sport in the country. There are a lot of kids now trying to play tennis."
And when they return to Santiago, what will their reception be?
"Going to be maybe different, so much different," Massu said. "Because normally we play Davis Cup and maybe two or three days the people are happy and then forget about Davis Cup. This is different.
"Going to be in the history of the sports in Chile."
Henin-Hardenne is smaller than many of the top-ranked women, but her tenacity has always helped compensate for any lack of physical gifts. After that four-month layoff, she knew there would be questions about her stamina if she went deep into the Olympic tournament and, to her credit, she played her hardest to the end.
And for her effort, Henin-Hardenne managed to get in only 30 minutes of practice on the courts in Flushing before her first match. Vaidisova seemed nervous at the outset and seemed more intent on pulling down her pink dress that the wind kept blowing up Marilyn Monroe-style than Henin-Hardenne's incoming serves. After dominating the first set, Henin-Hardenne "started to sleep a little bit at the beginning of the second."
Eventually, she found her game again.
"It's not easy to play the first round," Henin-Hardenne said, "but I came through, so that's the most important thing."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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