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Can anyone stop Novak Djokovic’s gold rush at the Olympic Games in Tokyo?
A look ahead at the not-as-thin-as-advertised Olympic men’s singles draw.
Published Jul 23, 2021
THE BREAK: A special edition on the Olympic Games
“How into the Olympics are you this year?” is a question that sports fans are asking each other a lot these days. Most of us love the Games, the Summer ones especially, but right now we’re not sure how much we’re going to love Tokyo’s. The specter of the virus, the lack of fans, the potential for positive tests among athletes: It’s as if we’ve gone back in time to 2020—a place where no one wants to go. Even the name of these Games, which is still Tokyo 2020, reinforces that feeling.
But sporting events have a way of taking on lives of their own, and making us forget about our doubts and reservations. The Olympic tennis tournaments seem poised to do that. Some big—very big—names are missing on the men’s side, such as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, but the lion’s share of the Top 10 is here. With its best-of-three format and 64-player draw, the men’s event feels like a well-stocked Masters 1000. Except that this one only happens once every four years, and this one offers its champion one of the greatest prizes in sports, a gold medal.
Here’s a look ahead at the draw, and at who might have that gold medal around his neck 10 days from now.
“I want to ask her how she did it,” a smiling Novak Djokovic said this week, when he was asked about the possibility of matching Steffi Graf’s seemingly unmatchable Golden Slam of 1988. This week Djokovic will try to win his first Olympic gold, and become the second player, after Graf, to do it while also winning the calendar-year Grand Slam. A gold medal is a once-in-four-years opportunity; a Golden Slam is likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But no pressure.
Djokovic has to like his chances. Not only are Federer and Nadal absent, but so is the man who beat him at the last two Olympics, Juan Martin del Potro. Djokovic will start against 139th-ranked Hugo Dellien of Bolivia (they’ve never played), and face the winner of Jan-Lennard Struff vs. Thiago Montiero in the second round. The first seed he could face is Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, and his quarterfinal opponent is slated to be Andrey Rublev. Not a bad hard-court draw for the world’s best hard-courter.
First-round match to watch: Rublev vs. home-country hero Kei Nishikori.
Alexander Zverev seems like someone who could thrive at this year’s Games. He likes hard courts; he has won multiple Masters 1000 events in best-of-three; he’ll be flying well under the Djokovic-dominated radar; and he has landed in a manageable section of the draw. Zverev will start against 37-year-old Rendy Lu, and the three other seeds here are Lorenzo Sonego, Aslan Karatsev and Hubert Hurkacz. Good players all, but also players Zverev should beat in an event as important as this one.
First-round matches to watch: Hurkacz vs. Marton Fucsovics; Karatsev vs. Tommy Paul
Putting Greece on the tennis map, alongside Maria Sakkari, has been a point of pride for Stefanos Tsitsipas in his young career. Now, with the highs and lows of Roland Garros and Wimbledon safely behind him, he should be in the right frame of mind to compete for his country. Like Zverev, Tsitsipas is the clear favorite to come through his section and reach the medal rounds, but there could be at least one speed bump along the way. He’ll start against 37-year-old Philipp Kohlschreiber, and the other three seeds here are Diego Schwartzman, Karen Khachanov and Ugo Humbert. But looming, potentially, in the second round is the man who beat Tsitsipas at Wimbledon, Frances Tiafoe.
Daniil Medvedev has spent the last three months slipping and sliding his way through the clay and grass seasons, with only sporadic success. He should be in a better mood now that he’s back on his favorite surface, but the Russian may not be thrilled by his first-round matchup, against one of the game’s premier disruptors and shot-makers, Alexander Bublik (who just played in Newport). The other three seeds in this quarter are Pablo Carreño Busta, Felix Auger-Aliassime and Fabio Fognini. The biggest unseeded name is also here: Andy Murray, two-time defending Olympic champion, will play Auger-Aliassime in the first round.
First-round matches to watch: Medvedev vs. Bublik; Auger Aliassime vs. Murray