Flying the Flag

Do contemporary players care about the Olympics?

Tennis returned as a medal sport in the 1988 Seoul Olympic games. Only three of the top ten players participated. Fast forward to 2012, and you’ll see Andy Murray beat Roger Federer in London to take gold on his home soil, a win that catapulted him to a US Open championship at the end of the summer. There was blood, sweat and tears left on the court.

Now, take a look at who’s going to 2016 Rio Olympics, and, barring injury, you’ll see the top five players in the world on the men’s and women’s sides. They care. There’s no money. There are no ATP or WTA points at stae. All that’s up for grabs is glory and legacy. They are there because they care about the event, and because it offers a tennis experience unlike any other throughout the year.

For many of them, their schedules have been crafted around the Olympics. The provisional list released June 30th is a who’s who of elite tennis, all of them flying under the banner of their national flags and wearing national uniforms. (Related: Opening Ceremony Outfits have become absurd.)

Also compelling are the match-ups you get in the Doubles and Mixed Doubles events, which relish their moment in the sun as prizes—medals in gold, silver and bronze—are suddenly equal to a win in Men’s Singles. Defending Olympic champions the Bryan Brothers will face some fierce competition from all over the world: the Brazilians (Melo/Suares), the Italians (Fognini/Seppi), and of course, a famous Swiss duo who have already tasted gold. We’re all curious if we’ll get a formidable Swiss Mixed Doubles pairing with Hingis/Federer. There should be no mistake about it: the fact that it’s possible to discuss match-ups like this is proof that the competition is working and that they players buy in.

Who’s not going to Rio?

In the run-up to Rio this year there have been a few murmurs of dissent from the player base that has called attention to flaws in the system: the tournament awards neither money nor, significantly, points. It seems that the players are able to accept the money but according to world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, the rankings points are a stickier issue. “That was one of the debates—whether or not we should have points in the Olympic Games—and to be quite frank, I don’t see a reason why not,” Djokovic said. “We have the best players in the world participating in arguably the fifth Grand Slam. It’s of that importance for all of us, even more, because it happens only every four years.” This year Dominic Thiem, John Isner, and Feliciano Lopez have all cited the lack of points as a reason why they won’t be able to make the Olympics. For Isner and Lopez, two late-career players whose success relies on maintaining their draw seedings and opening up easier first and second-round match-ups, every ranking point matters.

Davis Cup: problem-ridden and brilliant

John Isner also drew some attention to the Olympic scheduling. “The Olympics is very tough on the schedule…especially with Davis Cup,” Isner explained. “I think the fact that they have no points, to be honest, was a pretty big factor as well.” Which brings us to another international competition under heavy scrutiny: Davis Cup. 

Largely acknowledged as being broken but without a ready answer, the slow-format international competition takes a toll on players, both physically and logistically, and is its own worst enemy when it comes to marketing what should be international tennis’ marquee event. Uncertain venue locations, awkward surface choices, and untimely scheduling create a system of lackluster participation and make the Davis Cup fly largely under the radar with regards to worldwide viewership.

Most everyone agrees that the Davis Cup has moments of captivating brilliance. The crowds are the most intense in tennis and the players, once they commit to playing and get on court, show up to win. Throw in some nationalism and an opportunity to bring compatriots together to play with each other rather than against, and it’s a format that has provided electric moments throughout the years.

Pick your final and you’ll find a good one: Here’s the 2012 clash between Czech Republic and Spain. 

No one doubts the quality of the show, but the question becomes: how does tennis rebuild this event to capitalize on its incredible energy? At the moment there are many suggestions, but no easy answer. Many within the industry are looking to create a “Final Four” format, which would create a week-long event from the semi-final stage and final a home for it on a neutral site. This, of course, has to be wedged into an already packed ATP calendar. Others look to soccer’s World Cup as a model to create an event with less frequency and more importance. Perhaps every four years, likely in the Winter Olympic years, there could be a single, culminating event that stirs the tennis world into a frenzy and takes over a rotating international location. It’s terribly apparent that any condensation of focus and location would aid with the marketing, the sponsorships, and television viewership, which is currently segmented and generally lower than such a compelling event deserves.

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