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Tennis And The Olympics Make An Awkward Match

We’re on the ground in Rio covering the 2016 Summer Olympics. Check out all our coverage here.

Olympic tennis should be as, well, grand as a Grand Slam. The world’s best players show up with a chance to win hardware for their countries — and without making a yearlong commitment. They get to hang with other great athletes in the Olympic Village. And they only get one chance every four years — not four chances every year. That makes it especially precious for players who are sidelined with injury just before the games, as Rafael Nadal was in 2012 and as Roger Federer is this year.

The reality, though, is a bit more flawed. The necessities of the national nature of the Olympics imposes restrictions on what is otherwise mostly an individual sport. And that robs the Olympics tennis event of some of its top players and teams — and that’s not counting the stars who blamed Zika when they withdrew.

No country gets more than four players in each of the men’s and women’s 64-player singles draws — half the size of major draws. That limit means half of France’s eight men in the Top 50 don’t get a shot at individual glory. Meanwhile, to improve regional representation, Ons Jabeur of Tunisia (ranked No. 188 at the time the entry list was finalized) and Stephanie Vogt of Liechtenstein (No. 274) got into the women’s draw. At majors, they’d usually have to try to earn their way in through qualifying.

At least in singles, players are competing as they usually do. On the tours, some of the best doubles teams are paragons of multinational cooperation — a former pairing of an Indian man and a Pakistani teammate inspired tennis fans in both their countries. Part of what makes tennis great, if you’re into individual agency for athletes, is that even when players team up on tour, they do so by choice. They choose whom to partner and whom to dump — leading to a fun round of musical chairs and attendant gossip in each offseason. The Olympics, though, forces teammates to split up. Four of the top 10 women’s teams in the world, including the very best one, pair players from different countries. So do six of the top 10 men’s teams. There isn’t a ranking for mixed doubles, yet just three of the 16 majors since the last Olympics were won by a man and woman from the same country. Yet all those players who normally partner with someone from a different country had to find someone else to play with in Rio de Janeiro.

The bigger problem with mixed at the Olympics is how easy it is to medal once you’ve qualified: Just 16 teams enter (after having qualified by making it into one of the other draws and then signing up for mixed in Rio), so it takes just two wins to reach the semifinals. Win one of the next two matches and you’re on the podium.

Partly because of all the limitations, especially on top players who don’t qualify because their country’s talent pool is too deep, the tours stopped offering ranking points for wins in this year’s Olympic event. John Isner, the highest ranked American man, cited that as a major factor in his decision to skip Rio. Isner and other opt-outers have been feasting on depleted competition at the tour events. Isner got 150 ranking points for beating three players outside the top 50 in Atlanta last week — 150 more than he would’ve gotten if he’d won the gold medal in Rio. Ranking points, not gold, are the currency on tour, yielding direct entry to events and higher seeds that offer safer passage through the draw.

The Olympic men’s singles draw may have lost other stars to early upsets because of their best-of-three-set format until the final. Novak Djokovic, who has won just about every important title except a gold medal, lost his first match in straight sets to Juan Martin del Potro. At a major he would have had a chance to try to come back — a thrilling prospect whether or not he would have pulled it off.

I asked the International Tennis Federation, which helps organize the event, for a response to my criticisms. David Haggerty, president of the ITF, said in a statement sent through a spokesman: “The ITF is happy with the overall format of the Olympic Tennis Event, which presents a unique opportunity for players to represent their countries in individual competition. The current format ensures a strength of entry alongside a diversity of nations that reflects the universality of our sport.” He added that the draw size and number of sets are constrained by the desire to limit the event to a little over a week so players can get back on tour, and so that they can enter singles, doubles and mixed without undue burden.

I’m not arguing, as many do, that tennis shouldn’t be in the Olympics.1 All of the sport’s top players in recent years have competed passionately for their countries and have medaled in 2008 or 2012, or both: Serena and Venus Williams, Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. I watched many of them at the London games in 2012 and enjoyed the novelty of watching singles stars playing doubles, wearing country uniforms and bringing lots of new colors to the usually staid Wimbledon aesthetic. And no one who watched the Djokovic-del Potro epic, or saw both players’ tears afterwards, would prefer it had never happened.

It’s just a reminder that when the Olympic format is forced on top of an established sport’s pre-existing structure, flaws and awkwardness are inevitable. Tennis is an individual sport and is at its best when players — and doubles pairs — are free to compete for themselves.

Footnotes

  1. Nor is it a plea on behalf of ESPN, the owner of this website and the broadcaster of the U.S. Open but not of the Olympics.

Carl Bialik was FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news.

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