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?”
The present obviously isn’t quite as unforgiving in tennis; the pros have another Olympic-size event, the U.S. Open, coming up in two weeks. But as you can see from the reactions in Rio, even to a tennis player, an Olympic medal remains a unique and universal sign of achievement, something everyone understands, and a talisman that will be passed down to kids and grandkids.
Anyone watching this week could sense the pressure—if not now, when?—growing as the tournament progressed. In any other event, the men’s doubles final between Rafael Nadal-Marc Lopez and Horia Tecau-Florin Mergea would have been an entertaining three-setter. The fact that it was for a gold medal turned it into three hours of wall-to-wall, hide-behind-the-couch tension.
The tension in Rio reached a peak on Saturday during Juan Martin del Potro’s three-hour, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (5) win over Nadal. Like Del Potro’s two-tiebreaker victory against Novak Djokovic in the first round, this was a heavyweight fight, a gladiatorial battle, a long, slow duel in the sun. Normally, I like a quick pace, but it made sense on this occasion that chair umpire James Keothavong let Rafa and Delpo take their sweet, tired time between points.
The score was always close; neither player could get more than a break ahead. The points themselves were taut; Rafa and Delpo stayed close to the middle of the court and rallied carefully. Delpo later said that his strategy had been “to hit my forehand as hard as I can.” He did, and his ability to hit through the court may have made him better equipped to deal with the Olympic pressure than Djokovic or Rafa. But Del Potro wasn’t wild with his shots. While the audience roared and howled and booed and cheered and chanted around them, Nadal and Del Potro played with a gravity that fit the moment.
Each also took turns succumbing to nerves. Del Potro served for the match at 5-4 in the third set, and was quickly broken in a game that featured a five fist-pump “Vamos! from Nadal—the audience, which had mostly been pulling for Delpo, immediately left their feet and jumped to Rafa’s side.
Nadal was valiant, and brilliant, and gutsy, and after 19 hours on court this week, he had to be tired. But I thought his nerves cost him, too. “Nadal is only aggressive when he absolutely has to be. Then he’s not just aggressive, but reckless,” was the opinion of one commenter on Twitter. Rafa couldn’t find the sweet spot between risk and safety, but he erred mostly on the side of safety. Too often he waited for Delpo to miss, when just a little more forcefulness from the baseline could have given him the point.
Rafa won the first set, but at 2-2 in the second, with the finish line be inning to loom, he grew tentative. In the their set, he broke Del Potro at 4-5 and held from 0-40 at 5-5, but then he again grew tentative in the tiebreaker and went down 0-3. On the final point, with a chance to even it at 6-6, Rafa suddenly went for broke on an inside-out forehand that he didn’t need to make that good. Nadal did what he did too often in 2015: He fought all the way back, only to lose in the end.
Still, that’s not the way we should remember Rafa’s Rio run. This week was a return to glory for him, one in which he added to his legacy and reminded fans of the energy he can generate on the biggest stages. Taking himself and his friend Marc Lopez to a gold medal in doubles will go down as one of his greatest and least-likely career accomplishments, and a marker of his competitive will. Asked how he had made it through 20 hours on court this week, Rafa said, “The passion for the game, and the Olympics.” No ranking points, and no money, is necessary.
On Saturday, Rafa had to yield the stage to Del Potro, who finished by kissing the Olympic rings on center court, and jumping into the crowd for an Argentine version of the Lambeau Leap—he was even mauled by a guy in a Pope Francis mask. Fourteen months ago, Delpo was in a hospital bed recovering from wrist surgery; on Sunday he plays for gold. As Simon Barnes says, the Olympics is about being perfect now; Delpo, after two years away, was perfect just in time.
When Nadal and Del Potro and their fans left, the air went out of center court. It seemed like the worst possible time to hold the women’s gold-medal match, between Monica Puig and Angelique Kerber. But Puig quickly set about pumping air right back into the arena. The 34th-ranked Puerto Rican was a definite underdog against the No. 2-ranked German, and she was trying to win the first gold medal, in any sport, in her country’s history. But it was clear from the start that the Olympic pressure—the pressure of now—was sharpening Puig’s game, rather than weighing on it.
When Andy Roddick won his only major, at the 2003 U.S. Open, he said he felt an inexplicable sense of calm as he walked on court for the final, and that it continued through the match. That’s how Puig looked, too. Her demeanor was calm, her tactics and thought process were clear, and her shots were hit with more confidence than ever. She took advantage of Kerber’s soft second serve, and controlled the rallies without overhitting or aiming for the lines. Puig’s backhand was the biggest revelation of the night; rifling it up the line, rolling it at sharp angles crosscourt, and using it for deft drop shots, she made it look like one of the best shots in the game.
When Puig built a 4-0 lead in the third and took the balls to serve, she had essentially won the match. But now came the hard part, making it official. You knew that the ever-stubborn Kerber wouldn’t make it easy. Three times Puig reached match point, three times she couldn’t finish it—on the last of them, Kerber hit a forehand that clipped the net-cord and dribbled over for a winner. But Puig never looked anything other than calm and confident, and she never stopped hitting out and drilling the ball into the corners.
“Complete disbelief, complete shock,” Puig said when asked her reaction to her 6-4, 4-6, 6-1 win. But she had looked much more surprised by her semifinal win over the eventual bronze medalist, Petra Kvitova. In Puig, it was as if we had seen a young player grow up, and grow into her game, over the course of one week. In that, she has been the exemplary Olympian: She knew her country had one chance at gold, and she was there to take it.
As Puig kneeled down to sob in victory, the best day of tennis in 2016 came to an end. I’m already looking forward to the next one, even if takes four years to get here.