Olympics Overture

Tuesday, May 01, 2012 /by

Picby Pete Bodo

We're still many months out from the London Olympic Games, but things are already getting complicated—and confusing—when it comes to just who is going to represent the USA when the tennis event begins in August at Wimbledon.

Let's start by defining some of the protocols for qualification, which you'll need to know to appreciate the magnitude of the problems that some nations, perhaps including the USA, will face.

First, the preface: The International Olympic Committee has vested enormous power in the national associations (like the USTA or Tennis Australia and other ITF affiliates), so there's a fair amount of discretionary power that may come into play. As well, the IOC's determination to make the games as inclusive as possible could be problematic. That's if I understand the rules correctly, and that's a pretty big "If" when you read this most authoritative version of the qualification rules.

Anyway, the Top 56 in the ATP and WTA singles rankings on June 11 of this year will automatically qualify for a place in the draw, but—no nation will be allowed to field more than four singles players. As of today, at least three Russian women—including two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuzentsova—would be shut out, because Russia has seven women in the Top 56.

It appears that taking those three women (Kuznetsova, Nadia Petrova, and Ekaterina Makarova) out of the rankings will automatically open up three more places, so the real-world cut-off for on-merit entry will be No. 59. And if five Czech women qualify (as is the case based on today's rankings), the number will become No. 60. And so forth.

There will also be eight wild-card slots, but I assume the four-player rule will prohibit Kuznetsova from getting one of those. Also, the ITF's Olympic committee is supposed to award those wild cards with two major considerations in mind: The rankings, and the spread of the nations represented.

So here's something to mull over: Great Britain, while hosting the Olympic tennis event, has no female players at the moment who qualify for the singles. But something tells me we'll see a British girl going, going, gone for gold at Wimbledon come August.

Regrettably, right now the USA has no comparable rankings logjam to worry about. The No. 4 American woman is No. 70 Venus Williams (Vania King is the No. 3, ranked right on the cusp of direct-entry at No. 52—more about her later). The American men have four direct-entry candidates, although Mardy Fish (ranked No. 9) has already said he's not playing, and enough men are on the cusp that much is likely to change between now and June 11.

The final two slots in each singles draw of 64 will be awarded by the International Olympic Committee (that tripartite commission, I presume). Just why the IOC deems it necessary and proper to basically keep two wild cards for itself is somewhat mystifying, but the result so far has been acceptable—if you buy into the "big tent" theory of the Olympics.

Two main draw wild cards have already been awarded: Veronica Cepede Royg—currently No. 213 in the WTA rankings—will become just the second woman from Paraguay to compete in an Olympic games. Apparently, the organizers liked her excellent performance on the ITF circuit in 2011. The other wild card went to Stephanie Vogt of Liechtenstein, who was unable to make use of a wild card the last time around due to injury. 

Vogt has played Fed Cup for Liechtenstein 12 times, and that certainly influenced the decision-makers (whether she received an ITF wild card or one of the two IOC wild cards is unclear). Vogt's career-high singles ranking is No. 206, and she's never played in a Grand Slam event. I believe in a big tent and all, but not one so big it includes everyone. Can you imagine, Vogt (or any number of other potential wild card choices) and Royg in the Olympic games singles draw, while Kuznetsova remains shut out simply because she is merely fifth best in an enormous, tennis-mad nation?

Two other players who have already applied for a wild card will be more familiar to you: Lleyton Hewitt and Sania Mirza. Neither has yet been confirmed. 

And then there's the doubles. . . and mixed. 

In the men's and women's doubles, 24 teams will qualify as per the rankings of June 11, with a limit of two teams per nation. And the ITF will award eight wild cards to complete the 32-team draws. A player in the Top 10 of the doubles rankings can "reserve" a place in the doubles draw, provided his or her nominated partner has a "recognized international ranking" as of June 11 and the team nomination keeps the total number of players from that country to six or fewer.

That last stipulation is an important one, because the controversy brewing in the USA has been over the Williams sisters and Vania King. Right now, the USA has the two top doubles players, who are also a team, in world No. 1 Liezel Huber and No. 2 Lisa Raymond. Vania King is also highly ranked, at No. 5 (even though she hasn't played with the same teammate twice in five events this year). But the Williams sisters are the defending Olympic gold medalists, so it's hard to imagine them shut out of the wild-card distribution, even though neither is in the doubles Top 10.

It seems to me that the way the rules are written, the USA could end up with three teams, but King's potential partner is a mystery. The next highest-ranked American doubles player is either member of the Racquel Kops-Jones/Abigail Spears team, who are co-ranked No. 25 because they play exclusively with each other. They're followed by No. 44 Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who's played only 11 events, while Spears and Kop-Jones have logged 26 and thus boosted their ranking.

The USTA may have some very tough choices to make in the women's doubles, while the picture in the men's division is pretty clear. Bob and Mike Bryan are the No. 3-ranked team in the world, and John Isner and Sam Querrey are No. 14. Both will be straight in, and complete the USA quota. No other American is represented in the Top 24, and no individual is ranked among the top ten performers.

The 16-team field in the mixed doubles will be determined on-site (phew!), from among the competitors who have qualified for the either of the other two events. So here's the bonus question for y'all to ponder: Who gets Serena as partner in mixed doubles? Will it be John Isner? Andy Roddick? Donald Young? All of them are straight into the singles as of this moment, and Ryan Harrison and Sam Querrey are knocking at the door of direct entry, with five weeks' worth of ranking points still up for grabs. A lot could change among the American men.

Aware of all the other suitors vying for a date with Serena, Isner said the other day: "I may be the odd man out. But I’m pretty good friends with Serena. Might need to bribe her, maybe send a gift in the mail to get her to play with me. Obviously, she’s one of the most dominant players ever. To have her on my team would be a big advantage."

John, the number is: 1-800-FLOWERS.

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