I could hear Boris Becker bellowing from three courts over, and I knew by the nature of his howlings that things were getting ugly out there. So I made my way over and elbowed through the crowd gathered around the red clay court, taking up every inch of viewing space, and saw enough of the scoreboard to make out that Becker was down two-sets-to-one and clinging to his competitive life in a third-set tiebreaker.
This was a first-round match at the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. Becker's opponent was a Norwegian ranked No. 312 and in the draw as a lucky loser, Christian Ruud. The underdog had a serviceable backhand and a good forehand, but those weren't really the things that had Becker, the No. 5 seed, bamboozled—alternately shrieking like a jungle bird and roaring like lion with a rotten molar. Becker's real problem was that this was the Olympics, and try as he—or anyone else—might, it just seemed. . . so different.
Becker would win that match, 6-3 in the fifth, and survive one more opponent before he capitulated in the third round to that master of tennis legerdemain, Fabrice Santoro. He wasn't the only high seed to fall victim to an unexpected, perverse manifestation of the "Olympic spirit," either. Top-seeded Jim Courier? A victim of Switzerland's Marc Rosset. No. 2 seed Stefan Edberg? Out in three sets in the first round to Russia's Andrei Chesnokov (Edberg got all of eight games). No. 3 seed Pete Sampras? Bounced in the third round by that other Russian Andrei, Cherkasov. I could go on, but you probably get my point.
The gold medalists in 1992 were Rosset and Jennifer Capriati. She was 16 years old, but gifted enough to beat perhaps the greatest woman player of all time, Steffi Graf, on the German's preferred surface (Capriati was at her best on hard courts). Then as in later years, the women's event unfolded more predictably, suggesting either that they have a stronger stomach when it comes to the stresses and challenges of Olympic competition than the men, or that there's something about the Olympics that enables those from the ATP to tolerate and promulgate upsets at a greater rate than at Grand Slam and Masters events. As I write this, 29 of the last 30 Grand Slam tournaments have been won be one of the vaunted "Big Three." But only one of them, Rafael Nadal, has also bagged a gold medal.
The Olympics conundrum is perhaps best summed up by the saga of Roger Federer. He first played in the Sydney Games in 2000. It would be the first year that he played each of the Grand Slam tournaments, and he embarked on the Olympics with an 0-2 career Grand Slam record. Unseeded, the not-yet-Mighty Fed slashed his way to the semifinals, where he was beaten down by another unseeded player, Tommy Haas. Federer had to play for the bronze, and he lost, giving his French opponent instant immortality as a trivia question as well as a bronze medal: Arnaud di Pasquale was his name.
By the next Olympic games, in Athens, Federer was already a three-time Grand Slam champion and on the cusp of entering his golden years. He was top-seeded in the event, but lost in the second round to Tomas Berdych, and the gold went to the Chilean No. 10 seed Nicolas Massu. In fact, two Chileans ended up on the podium to receive medals; Massu and the superior singles player to Fernando Gonzalez, who earned a bronze.
Beijing was next, and again Federer was the No. 1 seed. He had won eight of the previous 11 Grand Slams, but he had been rocked after his customary runner-up finish in Paris in by a seismic loss to Nadal at Wimbledon. It was an omen of sorts for the Beijing Games, for Federer was upset in the quarterfinals by James Blake, and had to console himself with a gold in doubles (w/Stanislas Wawrinka).
An order of sorts seemed to emerge at those Beijing games; the bottom half semifinals were Nadal and Novak Djokovic (respectively, the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds). The top was still a bit of a mess: Blake was there in the place of Federer, and the No. 4 seed Nikolay Davydenko—admittedly a weak No. 4, compared to these days—yielded his semifinal slot to No. 12 seed Gonzalez, who then beat Blake. Gonzalez thus was assured a silver, and he remains the only male player with two Olympic medals, neither of them gold, displayed on his sideboard. Gonzalez was certainly a worthy medalist, as he was a worthy Grand Slam contender through his entire career.
The Beijing results suggest that it has taken an entire generation to get acclimated to the Olympics as a kind of "fifth major." It's easy to forget that a great debate raged back in the late 1980s about whether or not tennis ought to be in the Games at all—a discussion that had to leave even the players themselves uncertain, and willing to take an Olympic loss a bit too easily ("It was only the Olympics, after all. . .")
But that's all water under the bridge now (you can read some of my own thoughts on that at my recent Racquet Scientist post). The men, at least the elite ones who can afford to take an appropriate rest after Wimbledon and make what adjustments they need for the Olympics, agree on the importance and value of the Games. And the advantage they have as high-earners and performers (the luxury of rest and preparation) implies that if anything, the Big Three (or whatever version of that evolves) will dominate at the Olympics—as they dominate elsewhere.
Still—Nadal's withdrawal from the upcoming Games is a momentous event that is bound to have interesting and unpredictable repercussions. The volatile, wild-and-woolly history of the Olympics might re-assert itself one more time. Imagine, Feliciano Lopez—Nadal's replacement—taking the gold. It would almost be a fitting comment on the history of the Games, as well as some of the tennis event's built-in weaknesses or, if you prefer, signature quirks.
Granted, Lopez has been playing lousy tennis for almost two solid months (he's won just three matches since the start of the Madrid Masters, two of them just this week on red clay), and he's fallen far from the No. 17 ranking he held on June 11th, the original cutoff for direct entry into the Olympics. But remember that Lopez was denied a place in the draw not for lack of merit, but because of the arbitrary, four-player-per-nation limit. But here he is, by the grace of his countryman Nadal, ready to go out on Wimbledon grass with that big lefty serve and sharp volley to compete in best-of-three-set matches against a hodgepodge of players.
Do not for a moment think that Lopez (or a David Nalbandian, John Isner, or Milos Raonic) has no chance to win this thing. Beijing results notwithstanding, Olympic history still suggests that there's a 50-50 chance that the guy getting the gold medal hung around his neck at the end of the event could be Denis Istomin just as easily as Federer. Since tennis returned to the games in 1988, three of the six gold medalists on the men's side were Grand Slam champs and/or No. 1 ranked players (Andre Agassi, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Nadal), while three were long shots (Miloslav Mecir, Rosset, Massu). Check out the list of medalists: of the 21 total medals awarded thus far, only seven went to Grand Slam champs. Among the medalists: Jordi Arresse (Spain), Arnaud di Pasquale (France), and even Leander Paes (in singles!).
Two features of the event in London suggest that the form chart may not rule as it did in Beijing. One of them is the surface; without going into too many details, grass is simply the least predictable surface, both in terms of its properties (which can change dramatically with the ambient conditions) and the way it affects specific players and styles. The other element that may encourage upsets is the schedule. At Wimbledon (the tournament), they play seven rounds over 13 days. In the Olympic event, they'll play six rounds in nine days. That diminishes the signature gravitas of Grand Slam events, the tennis equivalent of the Russian novel, and makes it that much harder for all but the best players to endure over a fortnight.
Then there's the way the skies above the north Atlantic so promiscuously open their tear ducts over the United Kingdom. Rain, especially over the first few days, could wreak havoc with the Games. The schedule ensures that there will be a Russian roulette factor to these Games when it comes to rain. See those six umbrellas? One of them, when opened up, will explode in your face and blow you to smithereens.
The weather will be a wild card, as will the venue—who wouldn't get the tremors playing at Wimbledon, or even go a little weird when they see how the familiar clubscape has been transformed in honor of the Games (or is it obeisance to the commercialism of the event?). So my prediction is an unpredictable event; once again, chaos may reign at the Olympic Games.
Roger Federer is the top seed at the Olympics, and this in all likelihood is his last chance to earn that elusive gold medal that would complete his resume, as far as individual achievements go. For more on his glory years, you can download my e-book, Roger Federer: the Man, the Matches, the Rivals, either by clicking on this link or on the box at the top right of the TennisWorld page.