It’s almost inevitable that Olympic tennis starts with a bit of ambivalence. After all, tennis has its own markers of excellence, and its own rhythms, both of which struggle to fit in a week of Olympic competition every four years. And, even though tennis has been an Olympic sport since 1988 (and was a demonstration sport in 1984), many of the sport’s top players have skipped the event over the years. The conventional wisdom has always been that tennis greatness is measured in terms of major wins, and that an Olympic medal isn’t necessary all that important in the tennis world.
That ambivalence carries forward even when one gets to see the tournament in person. After all, we can see these players on a slow hard court multiple times a year, and the matches aren’t going to be all that different, right? Why watch more tennis, when the Olympics gives you a chance to see less exposed sports, like fencing and diving? Being at the tennis can’t possibly be as momentous as watching the 100 meter dash or the gymnastics all around competition, right?
This year’s Olympic tournament was far from just another week on the tour. Filled with emotion, and surprises, it showed established stars at their best and newcomers seizing their moments. I can’t recall a tournament that was as tinged with tears as this one — from Juan Martin del Potro’s emotional wins to tearful departures from Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic, something about this tournament tugged at the heartstrings of players long used to the ups and downs of the tour.
The story of the tournament has to be the gold medal run of Puerto Rico’s Monica Puig, who, prior to her run in Rio, had not made it past the fourth round of a Slam. Yet, over the course of a week, she ran through three Slam winners — Garbine Muguruza, Petra Kvitova, and Angelique Kerber — to win the first gold medal ever for Puerto Rico, cementing her status as a national hero (and ensuring that she will get to see Hamilton).
While the men’s singles gold medalist, Andy Murray was not a surprise winner, the gold medal match was a hard fought, well played match between Murray and the resurgent Juan Martin del Potro. For the first time since his run to the bronze medal in London, del Potro was able to string together impressive wins against Novak Djokovic in the first round and Rafael Nadal in the semifinals, while maintaining enough momentum to win the matches in between. And, in a bit of a surprise, Kei Nishikori won over an exhausted Rafael Nadal, to claim the bronze medal for Japan.
But singles was far from the whole story. Rafael Nadal and Marc Lopez’s gold medal win in men’s doubles might have inspired the biggest smiles we’ve ever seen from Rafa, at least since the opening ceremony. And Jack Sock avenged a tough early loss in singles with a bronze medal in men’s doubles with Steve Johnson and a gold medal in mixed doubles, with Bethanie Mattek-Sands. And, in a fitting result, tennis’ biggest Olympics fan, Venus Williams, managed to grab a silver medal in mixed doubles with Rajeev Ram, after disappointing losses in the women’s singles and doubles.
It’s refreshing that, in a sport that only rewards one winner week in and week out, we can have a week where each event has three medalists, so that those who make a final can celebrate their achievements. Even those who lose a semifinal have a chance to win again (though a more merciful rule might just award two bronze medals, no?) There are a lot of people who have a chance to leave happy — and, refreshingly, even in this era of great dominance by great players, the week in Rio managed to spread the glory beyond the usual winners.
What does this mean for the rest of the tennis calendar? It’s hard to say. There’s no doubt that the effort of playing those matches in Rio may linger with players afterwards. And tournament draws before and after Rio certainly were less star-studded than usual. But, the confidence that comes from a good Olympic run is invaluable — after all, Murray’s gold in 2012 propelled him to three Slams since, and historically, we can see that players from 1984 gold medalist Steffi Graf to 1996 gold medalist Lindsey Davenport to 2008 doubles winners Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka were able to use the experience of winning a medal to inspire their subsequent play. If nothing else, being counted among the world’s greatest athletes as an Olympian will certainly inspire those who participated.
Perhaps the more interesting question is this: who will still be playing when we get to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. The strange thing is that, after London, there were many predictions of who would retire after the 2016 Olympics — perhaps Federer and/or Nadal, the Williams sisters, the Bryan Brothers, among others. Now, it would seem less likely to see these same players in Tokyo, yet, save the Bryan Brothers, who do seem likely to retire, I would be hard pressed to bet on Federer, Nadal or the Williams sister definitely retiring before 2020. Maybe, after all these years, the allure of Olympic tennis is just too great.