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Naomi Osaka's inspirational beginning and impactful end in Tokyo shows how far tennis has come as an Olympic event
The Japanese star lost in the third round to Marketa Vondrousova, 6-1, 6-4.
Published Jul 27, 2021
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How best to understand, assess and appreciate the meaning of tennis in the Olympics? Over the course of 40 years, I’ve had my share of flips and flops.
Back in the early 1980s, I was initially thrilled to see tennis return to the Summer Games. One parochial reason for my enthusiasm was that a test version of the event was going to be part of the 1984 Olympics, set to be held on the UCLA campus, two miles east of where I’d grown up in Los Angeles. Two years prior, I had a great conversation with L.A.-based tennis icon Jack Kramer, who told me how excited he was to see tennis jump into the mix alongside so many other sports.
A tremendous example of tennis’ significance in the landscape of sports came this year in Tokyo, when Naomi Osaka climbed the stairs and lit the cauldron to officially start the Olympics. This was very powerful and made me proud to have long been a member of the tennis community.
But I didn’t always feel enthused about the way tennis was playing out in the Olympics. In Seoul ’88, Barcelona ’92 and Atlanta ’96, I became increasingly turned off by the Olympic tennis event. Why wasn’t Olympic tennis a team competition, for one? Rather, it was staged in silos, nothing more than a series of disparate tournaments. This was hardly the best way to generate the collective passion that often makes the Olympics so electrifying.
What was at stake was not clear, either. Nice as it was to see such players as Marc Rosset, Jennifer Capriati, Andre Agassi and Lindsay Davenport strike singles gold, in the scheme of things, it hardly mattered that the likes of Pete Sampras and Monica Seles did not. Until Roger Federer at last won Roland Garros in 2009, his lack of a title there was one blemish on his resume. But it’s ridiculous to criticize Federer today for not earning Olympic gold in singles. In other words, the Olympics struck me as tennis’ ultimate elective course. So non-plussed was I about tennis in the Olympics that I even wrote a column for Tennis Magazine urging it no longer be a part of the Games.
This proved incredibly ill-informed—and downright wrong. What I’d failed to see was the incredibly important role that tennis’ status as an Olympic sport played in raising its profile and credibility in nations all over the world. I was also provincial when it came to understanding economics, failing to grasp that while the American government is unlikely to pour money into tennis, that’s not the case in other countries. Thanks to the Olympics, tennis has become increasingly popular in far more nations. Russia and China are among the most visible, but there are dozens more, too. That’s a very good thing, triggering all sorts of new players, approaches, styles and personalities.
The Sydney Games in ’00 turned me around completely. The joy expressed by singles gold medalists Venus Williams and Yevgeny Kafelnikov was powerful. It was also compelling to see Venus and Serena win the doubles together—two sisters, showing the world what a great sport tennis can be.
Now I view the role of tennis in the Olympics as a microcosm of the way the Games overall play out: powerful, self-contained moments. Osaka’s grand presence at the opening ceremonies surely triggered hopes that she’d take the gold medal on native grounds, in a highly appealing, multi-layered storyline.
But in the round 16, Osaka lost to Marketa Vondrousova, 6-1, 6-4, with the Czech lefty adroitly mixing up spins and paces in victory. The second-seeded Osaka’s loss was one of many upsets that have hit the women’s field. Top-seeded Ash Barty was beaten in the first round. Aryna Sabalenka, Karolina Pliskova, Iga Swiatek, Barbora Krejcikova, Jennifer Brady, Ons Jabeur and Petra Kvitova all exited earlier than anticipated. Of the top eight seeds, only two—Elina Svitolina and Garbine Muguruza—have reached the quarters. The emotional impact of these defeats has been vivid. Barty was gutted. Swiatek cried immediately after her loss.
The big story on the men’s side, of course, is Novak Djokovic’s pursuit of the “Golden Slam.” Four years ago in Rio, Djokovic was in tears after losing in the first round to Juan Martin del Potro. “This is one of the toughest losses in my life,” Djokovic said that evening. To succeed on behalf of his homeland means the world to Djokovic. Recall, for example, the catalytic role of Serbia’s 2010 Davis Cup win in shaping his rise to No. 1.
So those singular emotional moments will come in Tokyo. Perhaps one will feature Djokovic. Another will come from the surprising winner of the women’s event. And certainly, there will be some lively doubles play. I’m curious, for example, to see how it goes for the American women’s team of veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands and ascending Jessica Pegula.
But again, I’d love most of all for the Olympic tennis event to become a team competition, following the World TeamTennis format—men and women, working together to represent their homeland. Just imagine, for example, if the gold medal boiled down to a mixed doubles match pitting Osaka and Kei Nishikori versus Stefanos Tsitsipas and Maria Sakkari. What a showcase for tennis that would be.