Aerial view of Tokyo's Ariake Tennis Park.

The relationship between the Olympic Games and the sport of tennis can be summed up in two simple words: It’s complicated.

Some players’ eyes light up at the mere mention of representing his or her country every four years. For others, the thought of Olympic glory elicits a much more tepid “meh.”

So why does the range of responses vary so greatly? Let’s start with a short history lesson.

Tennis was included in the inaugural summer Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. It remained in the Olympic program through the eighth Olympiad in Paris in 1924, when it was removed after the IOC and the ITF failed to settle on, among other things, a definition of amateurism. Tennis would appear as a demonstration sport at the 1968 and 1984 Olympics before its official reinstatement in Seoul in 1988.

With no prize money in play, the ATP incentivized players with valuable ranking points starting at the 2000 Sydney Games. The WTA followed suit in Athens in 2004, but that was short lived. Both tours removed point values before the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.

Got that?

In addition to a hot and cold history that excludes tennis almost as many times as it is included in the summer Olympic program, the Olympic Games are not the pinnacle of the sport like they are for, say, swimming or track and field. A major title or a world No. 1 ranking, which happen to be accompanied by handsome financial rewards, are the usual suspects atop a young tennis player’s list of career goals. An Olympic medal is simply a bonus.

And the odds of adding a medal to the trophy shelf are slim.

Andy Murray's gold medal run at the 2016 Olympics did not contribute any ranking points towards his year-end No. 1 finish.

Andy Murray's gold medal run at the 2016 Olympics did not contribute any ranking points towards his year-end No. 1 finish. 

Advertising

Only three of the 64 players in the singles draw take home hardware. Some singles players also compete in the 32-team doubles draw, and may have a third chance at a medal in the 16-team mixed doubles draw, which was reinstated as part of the tennis competition in 2012 after being absent since 1924.

Madison Keys has called her three-set loss in the bronze medal playoff match to the Czech Republic’s Petra Kvitova at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games one of the most devastating of her career. The American, then 21 years old, reached the equivalent of a major semifinal and left without a rankings boost or a paycheck. At the Olympics, placing fourth is like running a perfect marathon only to be tackled just before the finish line.

“It still kind of kills me that I was so close to a medal and I just missed it, but I got a great piece of paper that says fourth place on it, so that helps,” Keys told USA Today, with just a touch of good-natured sarcasm.

With no medal guarantees, it’s easy to see why the benefits of potential ranking points, prize money and schedule stability found during the North American hard-court swing may outweigh the opportunity to play for a spot on an Olympic podium that’s often located on the other side of the world.

For Californian Sam Querrey, 33, who hasn’t competed for the United States in Olympic play since the 2008 Beijing Games, the choice is clear.

“A lot of my friends don’t even know that tennis is in the Olympics,” he told reporters at the 2020 Australian Open. “It’s overshadowed by those other sports. I would rather win any Masters series [tournament] over an Olympic gold, so it’s just not on my radar.”

Though Olympic tennis spans only nine days in length at the end of July, tossing an international event in the middle of the US Open warmup events has ripple effects. The Games directly conflict with two ATP Tour 250 events and, for the WTA Tour, two 125k events. Player fields in the tournaments before and after the Olympics could also be affected given the preparation needed on the front end and recovery time needed on the back.

But for every player confident in the decision to skip out on an event that captivates the world for two weeks every four years, there are those who wouldn’t miss it for, well, the world. For athletes representing small countries, success on the court affords them an opportunity to shine an international spotlight on their homeland.

Wozniacki leads Denmark's Olympic delegation at the 2016 opening ceremony.

Wozniacki leads Denmark's Olympic delegation at the 2016 opening ceremony.

After retiring in early 2020, Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki listed her experience as flagbearer for Denmark at the Rio Games as the most precious moment in her career, despite the fact that she lost in the third round.

"Leading out your country to the Olympics where there's a billion people watching, I think that's something I will never forget," she told Tennis Channel.

For Cyprus’s Marcos Baghdatis, the Olympics were always a priority. As one of the best athletes to ever emerge from the Mediterranean island nation of just over 1 million people, he was awarded an opportunity to bear his country’s flag at the 2008 Beijing Games.

“It was the best moment I ever felt,” he says, smiling at the memory. “The best feeling you ever have is walking into a stadium holding a flag. You can’t imagine how it felt.”

Fernando Gonzalez joined Baghdatis and players like Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray in the tennis flag-bearing fraternity at the 2008 Beijing Games, four years after he and Nicolas Massu became the first athletes to ever win gold for Chile. Massu followed up the doubles performance with a singles gold, making him the only men’s player in modern Olympic tennis history to win singles and doubles gold in the same year.

Monica Puig provided perhaps the most memorable Olympic tennis “first,” with her surprise gold in Rio five years ago. She became the first unseeded woman to stand atop the podium when she defeated Angelique Kerber in the gold-medal match, making international headlines and prompting celebrations in the streets throughout her native Puerto Rico.

For the United States, Olympic heroes are easier to come by with 1,134 gold medals awarded to Americans over the course of Olympic history.

“It can be hard to get America behind you when you win one gold in singles when you have Michael Phelps winning seven or you look at our basketball team,” says 2016 doubles bronze medalist and California native Steve Johnson. “It’s just an interesting dynamic. The U.S. is so saturated with amazing athletes and iconic sports stars.”

While some players may figure the American medal tally is in good hands with the impressive squad sent from the U.S. each year, that didn’t stop Venus and Serena Williams from making repeat appearances for the red, white and blue.

Advertising

The U.S. team of six in Tokyo does not include Venus and Serena Williams.

The U.S. team of six in Tokyo does not include Venus and Serena Williams.

The sisters competed in their first Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000 and have accounted for five of the 21 total gold medals awarded to American players. When Venus added a silver medal in mixed doubles in 2016 to her four career gold medals*, she became the most decorated Olympian in tennis history.

Bob and Mike Bryan, owners of 119 titles together including 16 major titles, earned a gold of their own in London in 2012. So valuable is the Olympic hardware that it was the first thing Mike thought about when he received a notification that the alarm system sounded at his California home during Roland Garros in 2016.

“It was still there, thank God,” he told the Associated Press. “If the house burned down, I’d probably try to save some pictures, but otherwise, the gold is the first thing you’d run for. Can’t replace that.”

Jack Sock, 28, earned a doubles bronze with Johnson and a mixed doubles gold with Bethanie Mattek-Sands in 2016. The Nebraska native says he understands tennis’s complicated position in the Olympic orbit, but for the Nebraska native, the bottom line is simple.

“Personally, if I have a chance to play, I would never pass it up because even though ATP titles are what we strive for, further down the road you may have kids and a family to share those moments with,” Sock says. “The two medals I have now are something I cherish forever and may be the first things I show to my kids one day.

“If you talk to the average person who doesn’t know tennis and you say you won the Madrid 1000, they will look at you like you’re talking a different language. If you say you won a gold medal, they will know exactly what you mean.”

*Serena and Venus Williams won three doubles gold medals together, and though they each took home six medals total, it counts as three golds total in the medal count.