Can you imagine if the entire tennis season were like the Olympics?
On the one hand, it would be tremendously exciting. Every match during the Games, and sometimes every point, can feel like a life-or-death experience. On the other hand, it would also be tremendously stressful, for exactly the same reasons. Saturday was the best day the sport has had, and almost certainly will have, in 2016; but I’m not sure how my nerves would hold up if I had to go through it all again, every week—and I’m just watching. There’s nothing like the Summer Games for tennis, but maybe it’s a good thing they won’t come around again until 2020.
For most other Olympic athletes—the swimmers, the sprinters, the fencers, the gymnasts—it’s a given that they get one chance, and only one chance, every four years to make a lifetime’s worth of work pay off. That’s an unfamiliar and unnerving sensation for most tennis players and fans. The essence of the 11-month pro tour is that, no matter what happens, there’s always another match coming next week, and another Grand Slam coming in a few months.
Only during this week, in Rio, do we get a feel for what the stakes are like at the Olympics, and how vertiginously scary they can be. It’s a feeling that was best summed up, for me, by British sportswriter Simon Barnes.
“If you fail at the Olympics,” he wrote, “you have nothing for four years. Winning is not just about being perfect. It’s about being perfect now. The unforgiving present tense of the Olympic Games dominates the hearts and minds of the competitors. If not now, when?”