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Daniil Medvedev warned a chair umpire that he was about to “die” in the withering heat. Top women’s seed Ash Barty was bounced from the singles draw before the ink was dry on the drawsheet. Andy Murray swallowed his pride and flipped a familiar script, withdrawing from the singles in order to focus on doubles. Paola Badosa, a brilliant debutante, had to quit during her quarterfinal match and leave the court in a wheelchair.

The fates of the tennis competitors at these Olympic Games varied widely, but they all deserve special praise for one reason: Unlike many of their peers, including some very celebrated ones, they showed up. This time around, that meant a lot.

The Tokyo Games shaped up as the Bummer Olympics of 2020, played in defiance of the calendar—and in deference to the pandemic—in July 2021. Criticism came in waves. Media reports focused on health risks and the onerous protocols they entailed. The International Olympic Committee took its customary rubbishing over, among other things, corruption, the wasted infrastructure left in the wake of the Games, and the unsavory elements in the host nation selection process.

The controversial decision to press forward with the Tokyo Games stoked fears of a public health disaster and left athletes asking themselves if the prescribed return to the bubble life and social distancing was worth it. “No thanks,” many tennis players said.

Rafael Nadal, who owns gold medals in singles and doubles, begged off Wimbledon and the Games in Tokyo after “listening to my body” and hearing that he needed to take a break in order to prolong his career.

Serena Williams, who has four gold medals, announced her decision to skip the Olympics a day before Wimbledon started, but she declined to articulate her reasons. She had indicated earlier that she was reluctant to leave her family behind due to Covid restrictions.

Even before Roger Federer, who had targeted this Olympiad for years, reaggravated a surgically repaired knee at Wimbledon, he was hedging his bet. “I feel two ways,” the Swiss star said during the French Open. “I would love to play. I wish things were better around the world that we wouldn't even have to debate the thought of, ‘Is it going to happen? Am I going to play or not?’”

The tennis players who opted in for Tokyo realized how lucky they are to compete in a high-octane, professional sport as they rubbed elbows with, among others, Norway’s “Volleyball Vikings,” Kuwaiti skeet shooters, the Mongolian women’s basketball team, Slovenian kayakers, Egyptian triathletes, Korean archers, Brazilian skateboarders, Jordanian taekwondo experts, Swiss mountain bikers. . .

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Other hurdles loomed, psychological as well as physical. The players had just experienced a welcome return to normalcy at Wimbledon, where spectators finally flooded the grounds. Many players had simply seen enough empty bleachers to last a lifetime. The weather in Europe and London in recent months had been cool and wet. Tokyo would greet athletes with debilitating heat and high humidity, the occasional breeze feeling like dragon breath. There were no outdoor hard court tune-up events after the grass-court court season for the men, and just one minor one for the women.

Thus, Nick Kyrgios, Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and a host of other familiar names likewise decided they could sleep better without dreaming of Olympic glory. The four highest-ranked ATP pros from the U.S.—John Isner, Reilly Opelka, Taylor Fritz, and Sebastian Korda—got a leg up on their international rivals by remaining at home to prep for the final Grand Slam of the year on the U.S. hard-court circuit.

The most striking exception to the refuseniks: Novak Djokovic.

The world No. 1 chasing the ultimate grail of the Golden Slam, defied the heat—and perhaps even good sense—by signing up to play mixed doubles as well as singles. That was done more for the sake of medal-hungry Serbia than for Djokovic. That’s next-level showing up.

What Djokovic and his less well-known peers and rivals experienced in Tokyo, in spite of the pandemic, is something that made all the salvos fired by reformers and anti-Olympic partisans sound like popguns. What other event or mechanism, real or imagined, could showcase, on the greatest of stages, all those exceptional athletes who compete in the panoply of world sports that aren’t—like the NBA or PGA Tour—public obsessions?

The tennis players who opted in for Tokyo realized how lucky they are to compete in a high-octane, professional sport as they rubbed elbows with, among others, Norway’s “Volleyball Vikings,” Kuwaiti skeet shooters, the Mongolian women’s basketball team (“Maybe they [the top teams] will underestimate us and then they will realize we’re not that bad,” one of the team members told an interviewer), Slovenian kayakers, Egyptian triathletes, Korean archers, Brazilian skateboarders, Jordanian taekwondo experts, Swiss mountain bikers. . . the list goes on.

“Losing sucks, but losing for Team USA is even worse,” Marcos Giron said after a three-set loss to Kei Nishikori. “But overall, I'm still always going to remember this trip.”

“Losing sucks, but losing for Team USA is even worse,” Marcos Giron said after a three-set loss to Kei Nishikori. “But overall, I'm still always going to remember this trip.”

Nicole Melichor, who partnered with Alison Riske in doubles for the USA, said after their first-round loss: “We’re lucky as tennis players to have tournaments weekly. Other sports literally have chances once every four years. It really shows how much heart people have for their sport to work so hard for what can be just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Olympic tennis is always a hot mess, no doubt about it. The format is compressed: the singles finalists must play six singles matches in just eight days. Top competitors risk compromising their fitness because they often feel obliged to play doubles (the medals have the same weight, literally as well as metaphorically). The best-of-three format leads to more upsets in the men’s division. That helps account for the diverse list of medalists: Nicolas Massu, Monica Puig, and Marc Rosset have bagged singles gold in recent Olympics while Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Djokovic have not.

It was easy to dismiss this Olympiad as the Bummer Games. Some also claim that Americans don’t really care about the Olympics. I’m not sure that’s true as a general statement, and it certainly doesn’t apply to those athletes who are imbued with the Olympic spirit—the athletes who set aside career calculations as well as personal concerns to compete in the greatest international sporting spectacle of them all. Nothing else even comes close.

“Losing sucks, but losing for Team USA is even worse,” Marcos Giron said after a three-set loss to Japanese star Kei Nishikori. “But overall, I'm still always going to remember this trip.

“You know, now after experiencing this, I can't imagine what it would be like to play for the Olympics with a full crowd. And definitely, the goal from now on is going to be to try and make the Paris Olympics and represent the U.S.”

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