Medals matter to top players
By Steven Wine
OLYMPIC defeat four years ago reduced Roger Federer to tears. The world’s No. 1-ranked tennis player wept after he was upset by Tomas Berdych in the second round at the Athens Games, one of only six losses for Federer in 2004.
“He looked totally devastated,” said Chilean Nicolas Massu, who won a gold medal in singles and doubles.
Although most players make Grand Slam tournaments a bigger priority, and Andy Roddick is planning to skip Beijing, Federer’s tears debunked the myth that top men’s players don’t care about the Olympics.
This year, the highest-ranked men - No. 1 Federer, No. 2 Rafael Nadal and No. 3 Novak Djokovic - all are keen to do well in China. Whether they can avoid the upsets that have marked previous Olympic tournaments is another matter.
“I think everybody’s really, really motivated,” Djokovic said. “The Games have the biggest history in sports. I think for every athlete it is a privilege and an honor to participate.”
The women’s field also will be Grand Slam-caliber. It’s expected to include Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic and Venus and Serena Williams.
Since regaining medal-sport status in 1988 after a long hiatus, Olympic tennis has produced women’s champions familiar even to casual fans. Gold medalists have included Jennifer Capriati as a 16-year-old in 1992, second-generation Olympian Lindsay Davenport in 1996 and Justine Henin in 2004. At Sydney in 2000, Venus Williams won two golds, one in doubles with sister Serena. All are winners of multiple Grand Slam titles.
But on the men’s side, Pete Sampras - winner of a record 14 major titles - never earned a medal. Also shut out have been multiple Grand Slam winners Marat Safin, Jim Courier, Patrick Rafter, Gustavo Kuerten and Lleyton Hewitt.
Massu and American Mardy Fish, the finalists in 2004, have never reached a major semifinal. Marc Rosset of Switzerland and Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia were other surprise gold medalists.
Federer is eager to become the first man to win a gold medal while ranked No. 1.
“For me, it’s a big priority of the year,” he said. “For me, it ranks on a Grand Slam level.”
Federer is motivated in part by being shut out in two previous Olympics. Three years before winning his first major title, he reached the semifinals at the 2000 Games in Sydney, but losses in the final two matches cost him a medal.
Then came one of the worst days of his career at Athens in 2004. Seeded No. 1, he lost 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 to Berdych, an 18-year-old Czech. Some 31/2 hours later, Federer and Swiss teammate Yves Allegro were eliminated from doubles.
“Just really a bad day,” Federer said. “I hope Beijing is going to be a better experience for me.”
He has further incentive: For the first time since 2002, Federer has failed to win any of the year’s first three Grand Slam events. Losses to Nadal in the finals at the French Open and Wimbledon have jeopardized Federer’s 41/2-year reign in the rankings.
For all the top players, the schedule poses a challenge. Olympic tennis runs the week of Aug. 11, and the U.S. Open starts eight days after the Beijing tournament ends.
Roddick opted to focus on the Open. But Federer - who will be seeking his fifth consecutive Open title - believes he has the stamina to do well at both hard-court events, despite a bout with mononucleosis last winter.
“I feel like I’m exactly where I want to be,” he said. “I’m physically in a good shape again, so things are looking good, but there’s never a guarantee. I’m going to try to prepare the best way I can.”
The Olympics’ place on the calendar might help explain the history of unpredictable results on the men’s side, where the game is especially grueling. The weather is usually hot, and the proximity of the Olympics to Wimbledon and the U.S. Open makes for a demanding 1-2-3.
Because the Olympic tournament lasts only one week, players often have singles matches every day. Many also compete in doubles.
“I believe this is the key reason we have many upsets,” International Tennis Federation president Francesco Ricci Bitti said. “In Athens, the conditions were difficult. It was very hot. I remember some players lost just because of physical conditioning. It’s a very tough tournament.”
Federer said the best-of-three-sets format also invites upsets, leaving a player less time to rally if he falls behind.
“Look, it’s a tricky tournament,” Federer said. “It’s a more dangerous tournament than maybe a Grand Slam, where best-of-five matches may favor the favorites. And the draw will be tough in Beijing. Most of the top players are going.”
Perhaps for a change, the top men will still be around for the semifinals.
“I think there’s a better chance than in years past, only because I think the top players have been gunning for it,” U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said. “Everyone being healthy, I think you would expect the top guys there competing for the medals.”