The Break: Rapid Fire, Olympics Edition

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When Marcus Daniell and Michael Venus raised their arms in triumph at the Tokyo Olympics early Friday evening, their win over Austin Krajicek and Tennys Sandgren in the men’s doubles bronze medal match was historic in more than one way.

Daniell and Venus became the first athletes from New Zealand to ever clinch a medal in tennis thanks to their 7-6 (3), 6-2 victory. The tandem also confirmed the U.S. delegation would depart Tokyo without an Olympic medal on the tennis court for the first time in 101 years.

Tennis officially rejoined the Olympic program at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 after a 64-year hiatus. From then, the U.S. was represented on the podium at the first eight Olympic Games held in the Open era, hauling 24 medals in the process—including 14 gold.

Tokyo, and its one-year-delayed event, went much differently. Competitors like Serena Williams—a four-time medalist—and Sofia Kenin, the top-ranked American woman, opted out of making the trip. The highest three men’s singles players at the entry cutoff, Reilly Opelka, John Isner and Taylor Fritz, also passed on the competition. Rising star Sebastian Korda, who could have accepted one of those open slots, declined. Jack Sock, a double medal winner in Rio de Janeiro, wasn’t ranked high enough to make the squad, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Rajeev Ram were unable to bridge together their separate successes from five years ago in their return to the Games.

With a lineup full of first-time Olympians, Krajicek and Sandgren were the only Americans to go beyond the quarterfinals in any of the five disciplines this week. The two ran into the hottest pair of the year in the semifinals, as top seeds Nikola Mektic and Mate Pavic ended their dream of playing for gold. In the end against Daniell and Venus, they faced a tandem who were sharper and braver in the moments that mattered.

Daniell and Venus impressively won 16 of their 23 second-serve points.

Daniell and Venus impressively won 16 of their 23 second-serve points.

In the opening set, Daniell and Venus came out firing on serve to keep the pressure off their backs. The Americans did well to stay with the opposition, recovering at 5-5, 15-40 on Krajicek’s serve to stay in front. A game later turned out to be their best chance to grab hold of the contest when Krajicek nailed a forehand crosscourt pass to bring the U.S. to deuce. But Sandgren would net a forehand return, and the window of opportunity closed.

Daniell and Venus opened a 6-1 lead in the tiebreak before wrapping up the first set with just five unforced errors, then converted the first break of the clash against a shaky Sandgren to move ahead 2-0 in the second set. The U.S. pair had a stretch of moments to stay in it; they missed a break point in the third game, battled to reach 1-3 in a testy game that saw the other side miss two chances to build a double-break lead, and let two more break points come and go, as Daniell and Venus held for 4-1. The New Zealanders ultimately shut the door with a break at love when Daniell blocked a backhand volley winner.

"I can't describe how much that means. We don't often get to feel that on the tour," Daniell told the ITF website. "We have the country next to our name, but it's for ourselves. To be able to come to the Olympics and come away with a bronze and do it for New Zealand... it's just very surreal."

Added Venus, "Both of us grew up watching the Olympics, it's the pinnacle of the events in New Zealand. I'm super happy and proud of us."

The last time the U.S. was without a tennis player on the Olympic podium came in 1920, when there were no Americans entered in Antwerp.