I suppose we could call this the post-Olympics ATW, as the Games ended just yesterday. I was away camping in the Adirondacks with the family a good part of last week, and I've been in the country (game-rich Andes, N.Y.) pretty steady since I returned from Wimbledon. By the time the Olympics closed down this past weekend, the tennis event seem like it took place ages ago.
I'm not a big fan of the Olympics; I think the original concept has been terribly bastardized and exploited — if not exactly for pure profit, then for something like the collective ego of the Olympics establishment.
I must admit, though, that the final two or three days, when the Games featured classic track-and-field events, sure got my attention each evening. The USA women's track team has got to be the coolest collection of women on the planet, period. And my son Luke has become a Usain Bolt fan. He's running around some hay bales outside as I write this, doing Bolt's signature point-to-the-stars gesture.
One thing I'm tired of, though, is all the treacle we're served about "sacrifice" at the Olympics — and elsewhere — when it comes to the high-achiever athletes. Having great ambition in sports and doing everything possible to maximize your success isn't making a "sacrifice," in fact, it's the absolute height of self-indulgence. Just as locking yourself up in a garret to write bad poetry instead of taking a proper job and/or leading a more conventional life, while fraught with some hardships, is also an act of profound, if not always wise, self-interest.
A sacrifice would be, say, giving up those athletic ambitions to care for a sick relative, raise a family, or to join the Armed Forces out of a sense of patriotic duty. Pro athletes, especially in remunerative sports like tennis, aren't all that different from others with high ambitions, including those reviled "one-percenters," who get up at 4:30 am in Westchester to be in the office by 7 am on Wall Street — only to get home by 9 that night. They believe they're making sacrifices as well, usually under the guise of providing for their families.
Okay, the latter don't do anything worth watching or admiring, and don't necessarily love what they do, which is one reason we're so attracted to athletes. But they're in it for roughly the same reasons; personal fame and wealth. The end is always personal gratification, which is why it's so tempting to cloak the process in terms of "sacrifice" or even bringing glory to the nation. You just pick your poison if you're one of those achievers.
So let's acknowledge the hard work, artistry, and inspirational nature of so many great athletes. Let's appreciate the ways they make the world a better place. But let's leave "sacrifice" out of it. They are lucky to be doing exactly what they want, and all for a glory that is first, foremost, and overwhelmingly personal.
Novak Djokovic had a dismal Olympic Games; seeded second he lost in the semifinals to eventual gold medalist Andy Murray of Team GB, and what's worse he was upset in the bronze-medal match by the No. 8 seed, Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina. The second-ranked Serbian also lost in the first round of the doubles, despite being seeded eighth with his partner, Viktor Troicki.
But Djokovic bounced back to win in Toronto, and while that only seemed to underscore his failure at the Olympic Games, Djokovic took his setbacks — and subsequent success — with dignity and humility. After he won Toronto (d. Richard Gasquet, who fell to 0-3 in Masters 1000 tournament finals), he said, "I truly did not expect myself to win this tournament after the emotional losses at the Olympic Games. I really took it hard. I tried to bounce back and recover; I've done great, I have to say."
Nole went on to say how happy he was with some post-Olympics tweaks, especially the aggression and precision with which he attacks the return after he serves. I like how honest — and enthusiastic — he was yesterday and how well he seems to have processed those recent losses at Wimbledon (three big ones, I'd say), and expect him to be ferocious at the U.S. Open. And watch out for him in the next Olympics, in Rio. . .
You have to feel for the pros who were shut out of the Olympic games, either because they didn't qualify (Slovakia's Magdalena Rybarikova missed the cut, ranked No. 102), or because their four-player national quota did not include them (the ATP's Sam Querrey and the WTA's Vania King and Sloane Stephens of the USA, who were ranked in the 50s but not among the top 4 American women).
You may not have as much feeling for someone like the USA's Mardy Fish or Alexandr Dolgopolov of the Ukraine, both Top 20 players who skipped the Olympics. Fish, the silver medalist in singles in 2004 (l. to Massu in the gold-medal match) in Athens, simply didn't want to play. Dolgopolov wouldn't meet his national standard for qualification — thereby showing a singular indifference toward the Olympic Games, which represents a rare level of honesty, if nothing else.
In any event, those who did a good job while being left out of the big show were, first and foremost, Rybarikova (she won Washington, DC the same week as the Olympics tennis, defeating top-seeded Anastasia Pavyluchenkova in the final). Her victim, incidentally, was left off the Russian team because of the Olympic Games quota system.
King and Stephens both made the DC semis, somewhat mitigating their disappointment. The quality non-Olympic men held their own as well; Querrey lost to Dolgopolov in the semifinals of Washington; "Dog" went on to win the tournament, conquering Tommy Haas (see below) in three sets, more or less thumbing his nose at the whole five-ring brouhaha.
Aleksandra Wozniak became the first Canadian to reach the quarterfinal of the Rogers Cup (aka Canadian Open, aka Montreal/Toronto, as the venues alternate hosting the ATP and WTA each year) since Patricia Hy-Boulais a full 20 years ago. You can always count on one of those Canadians to make the quarters of her national championships every two decades; it's like clockwork.
Wozniak got there the hard way, too. She rallied from two sets points down in the first set to overcome Christina McHale, enduring an overnight rain delay while one game from victory. That can play on even a seasoned pro's mind, and McHale is a tough out even at the best of times. The 26th-ranked American is knocking on the door of the top 20, while Wozniak has been out of the year-end top 100 at or two years now, but is back up to 55 (and has been as high as No. 21, back in 2009).
Wozniak's joy was short lived, even if her pride was not. Because of the rains that wreaked havoc with the event, the Quebecoise had to return that same night for her quarterfinal against near-namesake, Caroline Wozniacki. The No. 7 seed proved a bridge too far for the Montreal native.
Also, a hat tip to Wozniak's countrywoman, rapidly rising Wimbledon junior champ and Montreal wild card Eugenie Bouchard, also of Quebec. She upset former No. 11 Shahar Peer and gave former French Open champ and No. 10 seed Li Na all she could handle in a 6-4, 6-4 second-round clash. I'll be posting more on the Canadian surge in tennis tomorrow.
Bernard Tomic and Ryan Harrison are both finding the pro tour rough sledding — rougher, perhaps, than they had expected. Maybe it's that I'm an American, but I like Harrison and have high hopes for him. But he seems to have gotten a few steps ahead of himself in his eagerness to punch through to the big time, while Tomic has perhaps grown a little complacent since his great run at Wimbledon in 2011, and assumed that his future as The Next Big Thing is assured without his having to work very hard (to his credit, he admitted as much at Wimbledon).
If Harrison has a flaw, it may be that he's trying too hard — expecting success to come more quickly. It's just this inner timing thing, in my opinion, hippy-dippy as that sounds. That meltdown at the Olympic Games was not a pretty thing to behold, but it did put his dilemma in perspective.
Harrison lost to Tomic in the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati yesterday, in what, were it a movie, might have been called: Battle of the Young Guns (That Keep Misfiring). At 20, Harrison is slightly older than 19-year old Tomic, and he's ranked No. 58 to Tomic's 49. But Harrison is nothing if not plain spoken. And he said, after that loss to Tomic:
"We’ve got a ways to go. There’s been two or three Top 10 wins from all of us and unfortunately, I’ve contributed a zero. For me I’ve got to break the Top 30. There are so many steps. Once you start beating those guys in the Top 10 you have to do it consistently. And they have such a stranglehold on the tour it’s a ways to go. The way you get to that level is to keep pushing each other, keep working and trying to improve."
Tomic, meanwhile, hasn't been past the second round since early May, at Munich.
Tommy Haas is no Bernie Tomic or Flyin' Ryan Harrison; he's 34, coming off so many surgeries I've lost count, and he missed a great chance at representing Germany in the Olympic Games because he just couldn't get his singles ranking up high enough.
But it tells you something that while he was outside the Top 100 at the cut-off date for direct entry into the Olympics (the official cut-off was No. 56, but the real one ended up some 20 ranking places north of that), the former No. 2 is now an astonishing No. 23. His latest successes: that loss in the Washington finals to Dolgopolov, and his wins over tricky David Nalbandian, Gilles Simon, and Radek Stepanek in Toronto where he pushed eventual-champ Djokovic to three sets before losing.
When they write the history of Serbian tennis, this day may be remembered as the WTA version of the Battle of Kosovo, also known by the mysterious and enchanting (were it not so bloody) Battle of Blackbird's Field. In any event, Ana Ivanovic, seeded No. 11 in Montreal, and Jelena Jankovic, No. 13 both lost second-round matches (after byes) on the same day, winning a grand total of just five games.
Ivanovic was humiliated by No. 28 ranked Roberta Vinci in a mere 45 minutes in a loss where injury was an issue: The former French Open champion withdrew from Cincinnati today with a tear in her right foot. Jankovic wriggled on the hook for a little longer, but capitulated to Wozniak (see above), 6-2, 6-3. It's borderline surreal to think how Ivanovic and Jankovic, the two most famous Vitches in WTA history, are struggling these days. Neither one is anywhere near over the hill, age-wise. And both have been former No. 1 players. Although Jankovic never did win a major, she was also the year-end No. 1 in 2008.
King Juan Carlos of Spain apparently doesn't settle for those choice seats at the French Open and then forget about tennis. Spain's figurehead ruler was well aware of the ongoing knee tendinitis that forced his countryman Rafael Nadal, ranked No. 3, to pull out of the Olympics (as well as the two big hard court events that precede the U.S. Open; Rafa's availability for the final Grand Slam of the year remains undecided) — so much so that he called Nadal the other day (while King Juan was on a visit to Mallorca) to offer him a little tea and sympathy — in their case, not being British, it was dinner.
They apparently had a nice meal and bout of commiseration, while tourists who spotted the two Spanish icons grabbed for their cameras and pens. Royalty usually doesn't pal around with even the most illustrious of commoners, other than the odd gamekeeper, so you know that the King Juan's interest in tennis — or is it merely Rafa? — is genuine. That's good for the game, even if it doesn't help Nadal, the 11-time Grand Slam champion, figure out what he needs to do to topple Djokovic or Roger Federer.