by Pete Bodo
It looks like 2012 may go down as the year when the tennis at the Olympics hit the tipping point. By the time it was over, very few critics could voice complaints about the level of commitment or interest by the players other than those, perhaps, who diminished their chances to earn a medal on Wimbledon grass by playing clay-court events between Wimbledon and the Games. Nobody among the top contenders went that route, so the cavil is sort of academic.
Personally, I still don't believe that tennis ought to be in the Olympics (neither should other highly commercial pro sports, like basketball, soccer, or — in four years time — golf). But the barn door is open and the horse is out, so the point is moot. I can enjoy it as much as anyone, especially now that tennis has become a full-blooded member of the Olympic family, as attested by the fact that eight of the flag-bearers (it's a high honor) were tennis players, and it would have been nine had Rafael Nadal been able to lead the Spanish contingent into the Olympic stadium in London.
This final validation of tennis (at least in the eyes of tennis people) began in 2008 at Beijing, where Rafael Nadal won gold at the end of a fairly predictable tournament. It was verified this year in London, and perhaps it was no coincidence that the vehicle for this maturation of tennis was the All England Club, which also hosts Wimbledon. The venue certainly gave tennis added credibility and visibility, both within and without the tennis community.
Whatever the case, unless things change drastically there will be no reason to debate the validity or significance of the Olympic tennis event from now on. No, an Olympic gold is not the equivalent of winning a Grand Slam; it's more prestigious, in the broadest sense, but also less significant in the judgement of those who know best, the tennis community. Whatever the case, it sure as hail means a lot more than winning any Masters 1000 or Premium Mandatory event.
So let's award our final accolades and demerits. We're awarding just one individual thumbs up in each gender division. Everyone else is will be an honorable mention.
Andy Murray's gold-medal win was a superb performance, and it lent something enchanting to these Games, not least because of the painfully and elaborately chronicled troubles British men — including, to this point, Murray — have had winning Wimbledon.
Nobody is going the confuse winning the nine-day, six-round, best-of-three-set Olympic event (until the best-of-five-set final) with a triumph at a two-week, seven-round, best-of-five (from the start) Grand Slam event. In fact, some pundits are sure to point out that Murray was extra-lucky at Wimbledon because he's already shown that he's at his best in high-quality events played on a compressed schedule comprised of best-of-three matches. Murray has won many more Masters 1000 titles than anyone outside the Big Three. The next man in the rankings, No. 5 David Ferrer, has yet to win his first Masters event.
But I wouldn't confuse these Olympics with a Masters event for all sorts of reasons, including the singles-doubles workload carried by most players, the fact that third sets were played out (no tiebreakers), and that the final was a five setter. Say what you want, going out to face Roger Federer of Switzerland in a five-set final on grass at Wimbledon just doesn't compare to butting heads with him on cement over three tie breaker sets in Montreal.
Add the inherent pressure of playing for your nation, which doesn't diminish even if the Olympics as an entity overshadows any individual event, and particularly one that isn't exactly a classic Olympics sport (like, track-and-field or swimming), and you have to be impressed by what Murray, part of "Team GB" accomplished in his little half-acre.
Williams of the USA gets the high honors in the women's division, and you can take your pick, Venus or Serena. I'm not going to choose, because they are truly a unit in some vital and transcendent way, and never more so than at the Olympics. They brought great distinction upon themselves and represented the USA in exemplary fashion in London. The unprecedented third double gold medal they scooped up as a team is just the beginning of it.
Venus Williams had high but fragile hopes coming into the singles event, but she had an excellent tournament when you factor in her age (32) and the long battle she's fought with injuries as well as that insidious auto-immune condition, Sjögren's Syndrome. One symptom of Sjögren's is rapid fatigue — not exactly an easy work-around for a top pro athlete. Venus knocked off No. 9 seed and recent French Open finalist Sara Errani of Italy, and then took out Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada. She gave each woman all of four games.
Venus's progress was halted in the third round by one of the most dangerous women on the tour these days, No. 7 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany. It took Kerber, who lost in the quarterfinals to top-seeded Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, two tiebreakers to topple Venus. But then Venus partnered Serena to take the doubles.
As for Serena, what can anyone say anymore? If she's not the greatest woman player of all time, she's certainly the most dangerous ever. Citing this as the best tournament of her career, she lost a mere 17 games and her serving stats were off the charts good. She beat Maria Sharapova so severely in the final that I was a little surprised the loser didn't claim to be an American (she does a fine impersonation) just to spare her compatriots the embarrassment.
The bad news for the women in all this is that the progress they appeared to make with the hot streak of Azarenka, the promise (largely unfulfilled thus far this year) of Petra Kvitova, and even the career Grand Slam completed in Paris by Sharapova is that if and when Serena chooses to play, they all would better off heading for the tall and uncut. Serena can make a laugher of a match with any of them.
Okay, so let's do our honorable mentions, ladies first:
Maria Kirilenko of Russia was the major surprise of the women; seeded just No. 14, she made the semis thanks to qaulity wins over No. 6 Kvitova, Julia Goerges of Germany (who knocked off No. 2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska) and even Great Britain's Heather Watson, who was playing well and certainly had the crowd behind her. . .
Unseeded No. 29 Kim Clijsters of Belgium expected too much of herself and seems to have been milking the system for all it's worth these past few years (why retire, even if your heart's not in it, when there's so much easy money to be made playing?). But given her unprotected status and lack of consistent seasoning, those were good wins over Italy's Roberta Vinci and No. 11 Ana Ivanovic of Serbia. They got Clijsters to the quarterfinals (l. to Sharapova) — she was the only unseeded player in that round.
Kerber once again met expectations by making the quarters (l. to Azarenka); say what you will, Venus Williams was not an easy out at this event but Kerber toughed it out in two tiebreakers. Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka of the Czech Republic lost the doubles final to the Williams sisters but making the final as the No. 4 seeds was a great effort, not least because enroute they bumped off top seeds Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond of the USA.
Germany came into the Olympics with a formidable women's line-up, but was kept entirely off the podium. . . Petra Kvitova could have regained a lot of ground with a strong Olympics, and the fact that surface was grass and the venue was Wimbledon, where she won her first Grand Slam title in 2011 (and failed to defend it this year) ought to have given her plenty of motivation. But she caved to Kirilenko in the quarterfinals. . At age 30, she was almost certainly taking part in her final Olympics as a singles star, but No. 10 seed Li Na of China has also played the best tennis of her life over the past two or so years, but she was knocked out in the first round by flighty Daniela Hantuchova of Slovakia.
I don't know if this was a Sharapova or a Rennae Stubbs thing, but all that un-funny blabbering about Chelsea Handler, who's a talk show host and minor celebrity, after a couple of Sharapova's otherwise fine performances really cheapened the broadcast. I mean, who really cares that Handler is in the box, how she got there, etc. etc. And did anyone else get tired of Stubbs using the word "positivity?" . . . Huber and Raymond of the USA crashed and burned at the Olympics, after a lot was made of the top-seeded team's great record; the record is still great, and I can see how having the Williamses in the draw automatically had to make them start thinking of silver or bronze, but they ended up with nothing.
Now for the men:
Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France had an excellent tournament after being handed a draw made up in hell. He beat mercurial Thomaz Bellucci of Brazil, flamethrower Milos Raonic of Canada (that record-setting one ended 25-23 in the third), and dangerous, attacking lefthander Feliciano Lopez before he came up, a little leg weary, against Djokovic in the quarterfinals. And to top it off, Tsonga partnered Michael Llodra to a silver medal in the doubles — their semifinal against David Ferrer and Feliciano Lopez of Spain went to 18-16 in the third. Tsonga the runner-up to Murray as the male MVP of the Games.
Justin Gimelstob has made great strides as a commentator. I know he rubs many people the wrong way, but he started with a great fund of knowledge (having been a pro himself) and has only expanded it and grown into the role of color commentator. The guy never fails to make a handful of really insightful observations in any match he covers, he's in thick with the players, and he has tremendous enthusiasm — even if he is a little too eager to declare this backhand or that drop shot "the best in the history of the game!"
Bob and Mike Bryan of the USA won doubles gold, greatly enhancing their status as a doubles team, given how many people assume that their scintillating record would be greatly diminished if the top singles players deigned to play doubles . . . Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina had a terrific tournament, his progress halted only by Roger Federer, who had to go to 19-17 in-the-third to quell the insurrection. Given the length of that match (4:26), it was a great effort when Delpo bounced backto take the bronze over No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic. . .
And how about Aussie battler Lleyton Hewitt, 31-years old, ranked up around No. 159 (when the Games' started), coming off five surgeries, in only by virtue a wild card? He knocked off two top 50 tour players, including No. 13 seed Marin Cilic of Croatia, before he bowed to Djokovic — but not without winning the first set.
Kei Nishikori of Japan did yeoman's work as the No. 15 seed, eliminating No. 4 David Ferrer of Spain before he had the misfortune to run into Delpo. He was still the lowest ranked player in the quarters, and the only gate-crasher based on seedings. . .And while neither Julien Benneteau or Richard Gasquet of France did much in the singles, they had a great doubles tournament, knocking off two formidable and highly seeded teams before they yielded to the Bryans in the semis. Undeterred, they then edged out Ferrer and Lopez to take the doubles bronze for France.
Andy Murray and Laura Robson also deserve a great thumbs up for securing the mixed doubles silver, bowing in the super tiebreaker in the final to top-seeded Max Mirnyi and Victoria Azarenka of Belarus. It was a great effort by the British, especially when you factor in that Robson is just 18 and Murray had just completed the men's final.
The Serbs had a terrible Olympics on both sides of the gender divide. No Serb won a medal. It was worst for the men, as No. 2 Djokovic lost in the bronze medal match to del Potro. No. 7 seed Janko Tipsarevic fell to No. 10 John Isner of the USA, and while you'd be hard pressed to call that a terrible loss it was consistent with the theme because Tisparevic and doubles expert Nenad Zimonjic lost to Benneteau and Gasquet in the doubles. . .
The Spanish men had nothing much to crow about, either. Ferrer was knocked out early by Nishikori, No. 11 seed Nicolas Almagro was solid, but Murray got in his way, Lopez was beaten by Tsonga and No. 14 Fernando Verdasco was out in the first round, a victim of Denis Istomin. And the doubles was no better, as the top Spanish team finished runner-ups in the bronze medal match.
It was no consolation for the Spanish, I'm sure, but India did nothing either, despite the nation's great doubles tradition. Neither feuding former wunderkinds Mahesh Bhupathi nor Leander Paes, who refused to play together, got a sniff of the medals in either men's doubles or mixed.
Andy Roddick of the USA, who had shown strong signs of revival, was just battered in the second round by Djokovic, who didn't even end up on the podium.. .Stan Wawrinka of Switzerland lost in the first round of singles, and was more millstone around Federer's neck than reliable partner when the Swiss tried to defend their gold medal.
Okay, next stop — Rio!