The Rally: The Games vs. Our Game

Saturday, February 15, 2014 /by
AP Photos
AP Photos

Today we have a special tri-Rally, between myself and my fellow editors at TENNIS.com, Ed McGrogan and Richard Pagliaro. Our subject is a timely one: The Olympics, with a few comparisons to tennis. Ed leads off.

*****

Rich, Steve,

Tennis has always had difficulty retaining the spotlight after the Australian Open, and that’s even truer this year, with the Winter Olympics dominating the discussion. The Greeks, already one of my favorite people for perfecting the gyro, were geniuses in developing the Games: It’s a must-see event every two years, even if you don’t exactly know what you’re watching. When curling is being shown on the big-screen TVs at TENNIS.com headquarters—and followed feverishly—you know the Olympics are big.

Why do I bring up the Winter Games? It’s not because of Maria Sharapova’s touching torch run to Sochi, or her work for NBC; nor for Maria Kirilenko’s fiancé, Alex Ovechkin, who just scored for Russia as I type this. It’s because the Olympics remind me of the Grand Slams.

Besides the obvious conclave of countries, the Games are more or less a two-week event, a monumental duration compared to most sports—but not tennis, which stages four such fortnights every year. In a sense, they accomplish the same thing: Showcasing its sport(s) to casual fans before going into hibernation. For tennis, the disappearing act lasts a few months; for sports like luge and biathlon, it’s four long years.

The Grand Slams and the Olympic Games differ in their execution, however. One thing I love about the Olympics is how every day seems like a Grand Slam final: Champions are crowned from start to finish, and the joy and drama never gets old. It would be the equivalent of the U.S. Open hosting a doubles final in the first week, a junior final on the first day, etc. Maybe that’s a way to give those tournaments some much-needed exposure, if the days of major doubles-only events, like the U.S. National Doubles at the Longwood Cricket Club, are sadly long gone.

I realize I’m comparing apples to oranges here, but I enjoy both multi-week, global sporting showcases. Are there any connections you draw to both?

I also leave this question for you both: We are always searching for the nebulous “fifth Slam”—are there actually too many Slams? Less is more in design, writing (forgive me here), and especially sports, which the Olympics never fails to prove. One thing I believe tennis suffers from is its inability to conclusively determine an overall champion. The rankings do it, but it’s a confusing and distant concept for outsiders; more to the point, it’s not done on the court. And with four Slams plus the year-end championships, there’s usually a lot of hands in the champion’s cookie jar when all is said and done.

—Ed

*****

Ed, Steve:

The Olympics and Grand Slams grab me most when bravado and execution are dancing in sync: Kaitlyn Farrington winning snowboard half-pipe and Steve Darcis upsetting Nadal at Wimbledon last summer resonate for me because of the rush of possibilities you feel after seeing the unlikely flash before you. When Shaun White fails to medal it feels like seeing Serena failing to survive the fourth round in Melbourne: Expectations of her reaching rare air are always so high.

I see a lot of similarities: Flag-waving, branding (the Nike swoosh is as visible as the Olympic rings), pop-culture references, and listening to former stars-turned-commentators (Johnny Weir, meet John McEnroe) reveal how we value and apply style points and back stories to judging our champions, and forces you, the viewer, to take a stand on your own preferences.

Do four majors dim the torch for tennis? I look at it as tennis hosting four Olympics annually, because tennis brings the Games to different surfaces on different continents. But tennis could take more of the Olympic model to its team competitions. I think trying to merge Davis Cup and Fed Cup into one combined international week—an expanded Hopman Cup with men’s, women’s, and combined team events—would be cool. They could still retain the current World Group format, with nations hosting home ties, but build toward a final four of Davis Cup, Fed Cup, and combined team, and hold it every two years. The scheduling would be an issue—as is the ITF’s reluctance to experiment with the format—but if they tried it every two years I think it might be interesting.

The majors could collectively decide to make each Grand Slam surface distinct, which might bring the variables you get with the different snow types, climates, and altitudes at the Games, but I love the four-major format of tennis because it’s a seasonal cycle. The problem is that the season never ends, so you don’t get that dramatic build that you’re seeing with the Olympics, but I look at it as four times to escape the monotony of the Polar Vortex.

What’s your take on Olympic scoring and the wiggle room it gives judges, and are there parallels with tennis officiating? Any favorite Olympic moments from the current Games or past tennis Olympic moments you guys can share?

—Richard

*****

Ed, Rich,

The first thing about this year's Olympics that reminded me of tennis was the way I reacted to the curling broadcasts. I hardly knew the rules, yet I was already sucked in and had chosen sides. For some hard-to-explain reason, I really wanted the Canadian women to the beat the British women. When the Brits seemed about to steal the match (or game, or tie—I'm not sure what they call it in curling), I shouted, "I knew this would happen!" And this was the first time I'd watched any curling at all since the last Olympics. That's often the way it is in tennis, too. It doesn't take long, no matter who I'm watching, to pick a player and find some reason to be disappointed if he or she loses. I guess that's a primal, irrational appeal of sports.

But as you guys say, there are also big differences between tennis and the Olympics. As you noted, Ed, Olympians have one chance every four years to make it happen, while the best tennis players have four chances every year to win the sport's ultimate prize, a Grand Slam. In the past, I've thought this made the Olympics slightly absurd and random. One chance every four years? What does that really tell us about who the best in any particular sport is? But this year I've started to see a point to it. The Olympics is about being ready now, in this single moment in time—no second chances, no "next time"s. Tennis is the opposite. There's always another tournament, usually the very next week. That can rob matches, especially ones at smaller events, of their urgency. That said, I like the Grand Slam system, and actually think there should be a fifth major—a real fifth major—if it could be pulled off. 

My question for you guys has to do with figure skating and tennis. Each, along with gymnastics, has evolved in similar ways over the last 30 years or so. All of them have gone, roughly speaking, from artistry to athleticism. Tennis, as we know, has gradually become more about power, speed, and stamina. At the same time, figure skating has emphasized bigger and bigger jumps over the overall flow of a performance. 

Yet I still feel like both sports have more artistry than they get credit for. I don't find today's tennis to be "brutal" or to lack finesse or even variety. And watching this Olympics, it seems like style is still at the heart of figure skating. What do you guys think, has tennis lost some of its grace for you, enough to make you like it less?

—Steve

*****

Rich, Steve,

Let me address your lingering questions. Richard, in regards to my favorite Olympic moments, two come to mind that are quite sentimental. One occurred two days ago, when I watched and cheered as Erin Hamlin of Remsen, N.Y.—a snowmobile’s drive away from my hometown in upstate New York—won a bronze medal in luge. It’s the first time an American has ever won a singles medal in the speedy sport, which is utterly dominated by the Germans. Congratulations, my fellow 315er.

But the Olympic tennis moment which comes to mind took place on August 3, 2012. I know the exact date because it was my wedding day. That Friday morning I walked off the golf course and into the bar, where Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro were deadlocked at 15-15 in the third set of their semifinal at Wimbledon. My enjoyment of this was probably heightened by the fact that I had zero regard for the “work” ramifications of this match (thanks, Richard), but nevertheless, it was impressive to see both men try to overshadow my day. I’m still looking forward to watching the entire four-hour and 26-minute, 3-6, 7-6, 19-17 marathon (don’t tell me what happens to Federer in the final).

Steve, on the subject of artist vs. ascetic, if you will, I often find myself seeking out what obvious finesse there is in the pro game. Such “old grace” is why I think more people tend to enjoy Richard Gasquet, Grigor Dimitrov, and Federer than, say, David Ferrer or Tomas Berdych. But as a tennis player, I can admire what art there is in Ferrer’s barrage of two-handed backhands and Berdych’s booming serves. From my experience, both hardcore and casual fans find monotony and style in different ways. Whatever they say about art and interpretation, I think it applies here as well.

—Ed

*****

Steve, Ed,

Sometimes, I think artistry is shaped by age: A generation that regards Edberg’s backhand volley or Graf’s running forehand as their definition of grace may cling to that as the timeless ideal, whereas fans who came of age more recently may see Federer's running forehand or Radwanska conjuring a drop shot as the depiction today.

I’m guilty of glorifying the old days because contrasting styles seemed more distinct then, but that still exists now, although perhaps more nuanced. When you think of the disparate styles in Melbourne, from old-school Kimiko Date Krumm to young firebrand Garbine Muguruza, or see 41-year-old Daniel Nestor and 20-year-old Kristina Mladenovic win the Aussie Open mixed doubles title together, it reinforces the idea that some players can merge form and movement like choreographers mixing twerking with tango. I think the game can be every bit as artistic and graceful now because for all the focus on power, often tennis is still about movement. A common link among the Big Four is the shared ability to move exceptionally and find the passion that moves them.  

Another similarity in the two sports is the idea of the athlete as a performer bringing a narrative to the competition. Watching the German figure-skating team of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy’s Pink Panther performance the other night, I couldn’t help but see Savchenko’s hot pink costume and think of Serena Williams wearing the skin-tight black catsuit at the U.S. Open. Same for when Sharapova wore a black evening dress inspired by Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the Open, or even the year the Jensen brothers brought cartoons to court, dressing in matching Scooby Doo outfits. Players, and skaters, can use all of it to convey their narrative.

But beyond the costumes, it’s a reminder that while we watch the sports of motion, the career arc moves. Seeing Evgeni Plushenko win another gold medal in the team competition, then being forced to pull out in individuals, I thought of Elena Dementieva winning the gold in 2008 but never quite getting over the line in a Grand Slam final. The Olympics can serve as a springboard—it did for Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka—or as the ultimate platform, as it was for Dementieva and Nicolas Massu.

—Richard

*****

Ed, Rich,

You're right about age, Rich: Everyone has their glory day. In the 1980s, it was hard to imagine that fans of the future would look back on that decade as some kind of tennis utopia. At the time, it was considered a poor substitute for the 70s. But now we talk about its champions—Lendl, Edberg, Becker—as if they were demigods who played the game the way it was meant to be played, and nothing in the sport has been the same since. 

The problem with hanging on to old ideas of what's beautiful is that it can blind you to today’s artistry, which is bound to revel itself in different ways. The arc of Rafael Nadal's forehand, the easy way Novak Djokovic can curl a sharply hooked cross-court forehand on one point and knock off a two-handed backhand down the line on the next; Murray's deadly running cross-court forehand and backhand return of serve: None of those involve one-handed backhands or serving and volleying, and they don't look like throwbacks to the old days; but in the future I'm guessing we'll see tapes of those players and those shots and say, "That's when tennis was great." Artistry is in the eye of the beholder, as long as the beholder has his or her eye open.

To get back to our original subject, the Olympics, I have to say my favorite moment was the Miracle on Ice—for non-Americans, that was the U.S. hockey team's shocker of a win over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Winter Olympics and subsequent gold medal finish. I was 10 years old and it really did seem impossible to believe. I don't remember Al Michaels asking, "Do you believe in miracles?" but I do remember him yelling "Eruzione!" when the team’s shaggy captain, Mike Eruzione, snapped in the deciding goal.

More recently, I loved how the U.S. took the basketball competition back in the last two Olympics, and the unlikely partnership between LeBron and Mike Krzyzewski that made it happen. Then there was the 2012 tennis event in London. Murray's win (sorry Ed, and Fed), Serena's win, the unbridled excitement that all of the players showed when they won any type of medal—no way you can say tennis and the Games don't mix after that. If we want to call any event the fifth Grand Slam, it's that one.

—Steve

Before commenting, please read our Posting Guidelines.

Top Ranked Players
More Rankings