It’s still possible, at least theoretically, to make a case that tennis isn't a good fit for the Olympics, though you won’t read it in this column—if the Games are good enough for Serena Williams andRoger Federer (and Rafa and Novak and pretty much every other player), they’re good enough for me. But even if I were to make that argument, even if I were a purist who believes that the Olympics should be reserved for steeple chasers and power walkers and beach volleyballers, none of whom have a Wimbledon of their own, what would I do when the tennis event at the Games went on anyway, despite my beliefs? Pretend that I didn’t care? Stage my own futile personal protest by watching sports I didn’t like as much as tennis?
Love it or hate it, this is a tournament that has come to mean a lot to the players, one that they work toward, one that they dream about winning. The thought of competing in London has kept a few of them going over the last year, and the thought of competing in Rio in 2016 may help keep Federer and Serena going for four more. Why look that gift horse in the mouth?
Now that we’re watching, I’ll take a look at a few of the things that make the Olympic tennis experience special and different from the rest of the season.
Tennis Players Get to Be Faces in the Crowd
Among those who think tennis and the Games don't work together, there’s a sense that the rich and famous ATP and WTA pros are invading the swimmers’ and runners’ natural turf, stealing some of the thunder that we only get to hear from them every four years. To me, the opposite is the case. I like how even the most famous tennis players, while they attract their share of awed reporters and frantic pin-hunters, don’t overshadow the traditional Olympic sports and their athletes. Yes, Roger Federer is in London, but the biggest names, at the least in the States, are still Phelps, Lochte, Missy Franklin, Jordyn Weiber, and the track and field stars we’ll begin to hear about next week. And while Andy Murray is playing, the biggest story in England so far is the surprise bronze earned by the country's men's gymnastic team. In 2008 in Beijing, it was news that the Great Phelps actually knew who Rafael Nadal was and was happy to meet him, not the other way around.
For these two weeks, tennis players take their place alongside the world’s best athletes, not above or below them. At the opening ceremony, we had a chance to see how important even the less famous among these players are in their home countries—non-household names like Max Mirnyi, Horia Tecau, and Stan Wawrinka were given the honor of carrying their countries’ flags. It’s hard to think of anyone, tennis player or not, who looked prouder or more excited to do it than Novak Djokovic. Both Andy Murray and Andy Roddick talked this week about how different it felt not to be the center of attention, but neither was put out by it. The Olympics are a universe of their own, one where water polo and badminton get to share a stage with the NBA and feel just as important. It’s been interesting to see tennis adapt and find its place inside that universe. Where else can you see the normally stern and stoical Venus Williams giggle like a little kid when she gets to trade a piece of metal with someone in the crowd?
We See How Serious Two Out of Three Can Be
From Serena to Novak to Murray to Federer, the players have made no secret of how thrilled they would be to win a gold medal; both Murray and Djokovic have called it the ultimate achievement. What makes this week unique is that, unlike those other “ultimate” events in tennis, the Slams, the men’s singles is two-out-of-three sets. Maybe this accounted for Djokovic’s tight start in his first round, in which he dropped a set to Fognini before gathering himself—one more lost set and his Olympic experience was over for four years. The men have no margin for error at this particular ultimate event, the way they do at the majors. I’ll take three-of-five if I have to choose; there’s a better chance that the superior player will win. But two-of-three gets your attention right away.
We See NBC's Pat O’Brien Do Tennis
At first, it seemed as if O’Brien, a veteran of many Olympics past, felt like an exile having to host the tennis coverage way out at the All England Club, and way up the dial on Bravo. He has rambled some, he has gotten colleagues’ names wrong—“let's send it over to Rebecca Stubbs"—and he's generally sounded like the channel's crusty uncle. But he ripped Ryan Harrison more forthrightly than those in the tennis biz would have been likely to do.
The Bravo broadcasts haven’t been perfect. Like ESPN, the network will make you sit through a less-than-germane studio piece even while a match you want to see is reaching its crucial stages. And like every other channel, the commentators talk too much. But I’m not going to complain when tennis is one of the few, maybe the only, sport on NBC with a dedicated network that’s showing the event live. And when they do bring out Mary Jo Fernandez’s son to show off his pin collection while Tsonga is playing Raonic, I can always stream it online.
We See Players Looking and Acting a Little Differently
In this alternate sports universe, the players wear different clothes. Thumbs up: Bellucci’s Brazilian yellow on his shirt; Venus and Serena’s red, white, and blue dresses, and especially Venus’s continuation of the theme in her hair; Wozniacki’s red baseball cap; Murray’s navy version of his kit; Djokovic’s Serbian blue and Tsonga’s French bleu; the Radwanskas' doubles outfits; Sharapova going visor-less. There’s something positive about knowing that these aren’t simply the latest individual creations by Nike or Adidas or UniQlo. They’re uniforms, but with none of the rigidity or solemnity that the word implies.
Better, though, is the chance to see the players thrown into new situations, where they have a chance to show off skills you never knew they had. This is one of the beauties of doubles, of course; it forces even the most stubborn baseliners to find their way to the net. When they get there, they often surprise you with how well they know their way around the front of the court—you wonder, why have I never seen your shoe-top volleys and touch lobs before? Yesterday, it was Kei Nishikori, a classic Bollettieri grinder by day, who showed how fast his hands can be. He and partner Go Soeda nearly took out the defending gold medalists, Federer and Wawrinka. While they lost, the Japanese matched them reflex volley for reflex volley for three close and entertaining sets.
Fellow lovers of deft volleys, ricochet rallies, and meaningful doubles, we should savor the chance to live in tennis’s other universe while we can. Like the players, we won't get back here for another four years.