Tennis isn’t unique in the history of the world.
It’s a special theater of human endeavor which has captured the imaginations of many human beings. All of its best and most redeeming qualities somehow propel the sport past its massive organizational and governmental flaws, enough to keep it alive and reasonably vibrant.
How did Major League Baseball survive the 1919 Black Sox betting scandal or the 1994 strike which wiped out the World Series, or the steroids revelations which soiled the 1998 home run chase and cast a cloud over subsequent years of competition?
How is the Catholic Church — while certainly not in particularly robust condition in the United States and Europe — somehow growing in the global South, still relevant for millions upon millions of people in spite of centuries of corruption and the more-recent revelations of child sex abuse by priests?
If people — a lot of them — didn’t care deeply about a certain part of their shared life experiences, these entities would exist on the outer fringes of society.
Baseball, for Americans, might enjoy the popularity of Major League Lacrosse.
Catholicism might be as globally relevant as any of a number of comparatively minor denominations.
Tennis would exist in the wasteland it occupied in the early 1960s, before the sport collectively awakened from sleep and opened Wimbledon (and the other major tournaments) to professionals.
Somehow, though, tennis — for all its bullshit — continues to overcome its profound flaws. Like other core parts of life, its greatness once again exceeds its manifest deficiencies.
This was very much the case at the 2016 Summer Olympic tennis tournament, now tucked into the history books.
The superb tennis writer and analyst Rene Denfeld, at The Tennis Island, wrote an outstanding reflection on the 2016 Wimbledon tournament. It was and is an excellent case study in capturing the coexistence of bullshit and beauty, and in noting how the beauty was so powerful that it overcame the crap. The Wimbledon women’s singles final between Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber was so luminous in its quality and human grace that it was impossible not to leave Wimbledon with a reminder of why we all love tennis in the first place — this, after a tournament which had contained so many strongly negative elements.
Denfeld didn’t sweep the bullshit under the rug — he acknowledged it, and then noted how Serena-Kerber transcended it.
The Rio Olympic tennis tournament did much the same thing for the sport.
Let’s not sweep the bullshit under the rug. In order to appreciate and value the rousing, poignant and historically resonant tournament which just unfolded in Brazil, one must note all the ways in which the event was still marginalized, and in which competitors were put in highly difficult and — yes, it’s not an exaggeration — unfair positions.
In order to see the bad side of this tournament, however, the starting point is to note how much effort the athletes devoted to it.
We saw this past week how much the Olympics matter to the professional athletes who played in this tournament for zero rankings points and zero money. The amount of care, the depth of passion, displayed by these athletes was impossible to fully measure. Only the most special event can call forth such a soulful response from established pros who weren’t making a dime for interrupting the tour season and making (in many cases) a relatively long journey to South America.
We saw how much Monica Puig cherished this moment, becoming Puerto Rico’s first Olympic gold medalist — no, not in tennis, and not at these Summer Games in Brazil, but in recorded human history. The national and international realities of the Olympics and the broad sweep of their history create story lines — and achievements, and emotions — which go beyond tennis or any other specific sport. Puig fashioned a tennis story, yes, but she forged an Olympic story as well, one which will confer sporting immortality on her name.
For all the cynicism the Olympics generate through the (generationally consistent and) corrupt workings of the International Olympic Committee and the more in-the-moment scandals such as the Russian doping debacle, the story of Monica Puig makes it impossible to deny the enduring appeal and — yes — value of the Olympics. Tennis deepened its identity and strongly validated its existence at the Olympic Games. Puig’s remarkable run is the foremost example in support of that claim.
What’s another special part of the Olympics which rarely exists in regular tour events? Players finishing second or third and being deeply happy — not just a gracious runner-up, but genuinely satisfied to have gained a place on the medal stand. Petra Kvitova cried tears of joy after winning her bronze-medal match against Madison Keys. No other sporting event in the world creates equally joyful third-place finishers.
Yes, as Juan Jose Vallejo has noted, third-place (bronze medal) matches really shouldn’t exist. Co-bronzes should be handed to each of the semifinal losers. Nevertheless, the Olympics honor the achievement of second or third place in ways that regular tour events (or the not-so-regular events known as the majors) do not. Through that prism, we also saw how this tournament matters.
We saw how persistently Juan Martin del Potro lugged his big frame and his limited one-handed slice backhand across the slow hardcourts of Rio, pushing himself beyond his limits and showing the resilience other similarly-talented men (Tomas Berdych comes to mind) have failed to display.
Delpo pushed himself on a physical level, but he also fought through the injuries which have robbed him of the prime years of his career. He also carried the weight of the mind, the knowledge of having lost a 19-17 third set in a previous Olympic semifinal in 2012. When he outlasted Rafael Nadal in a 2016 semifinal over three hours in length, it was as though he tangibly triumphed over one of the more painful chapters in his past. Del Potro has medaled in two straight Olympics, bringing glory to Argentina. He has carved out a special place in history… and in his nation.
Delpo derived something meaningful from tennis… but it’s not as though tennis was fair to him at the Olympics.
Enter the bullshit.
The final — the gold medal match — was a best-of-five-set competition. The three-or-five-set debate is such a tired subject in the sport. That’s not fact, but opinion. However, it’s also a red herring in general, and it was very much the case at the Olympics.
The men can play best-of-five when they take days off between matches. In a tournament whose matches are played one day after the other, sure, best-of-three should be installed, but if competitors can rest, best-of-five becomes allowable.
What, then, was a major source of the B.S. which infested this tournament? Very simply, when rain pushed back the men’s schedule, the semifinals were played on Saturday and the final on Sunday. One critique — perfectly legitimate, but not the one I agree with — was that playing a best-of-five final after five previous best-of-three matches is inconsistent. The more relevant criticism, in my opinion: Why couldn’t this tournament push back the final to Monday, to give Delpo (and Andy Murray, but especially the man who played a three-hour-plus semifinal) a chance to recharge the batteries?
Sunday’s final managed to be highly compelling, and Delpo managed to fight in much the same way he did in the 2009 U.S. Open final at a much younger age, but one can’t help but wonder how the proceedings would have been different if each man had a full day to rest.
We know why that day of rest wasn’t possible — or at the very least, realistic: The Cincinnati Masters started main-draw play on Monday. The tour calendar — whose Canada Masters (the Rogers Cup) ended five days before the opening ceremony of the Rio Games — immediately started another 1,000-point tournament the day after Rio’s tennis event ended.
This is why the best-of-three-versus-best-of-five argument is such a joke. The unnecessarily attritional quality of tennis we should be discussing is a logistical schedule in which players have to fly very long distances with very little time to prepare for — or decompress from — various tournaments.
That’s if they choose to play consecutive tournaments in the first place.
It should not be lost on anyone that Novak Djokovic, by playing in and winning Canada, had very little preparation time for the Olympics. He promptly lost — his opponent certainly had a lot to do with it, but the World No. 1 certainly wasn’t in position to be as rested or acclimated as he needed to be in Brazil.
Whereas Djokovic sacrificed prime competitive position and leverage at the Olympics so that he could win what is supposed to be a relatively important tour event (a Masters 1000 competition), Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal both eschewed Canada, and won Olympic gold.
When players must choose between one important tournament and another, something’s very wrong. The calendar — not best-of-five in the final — is the witheringly unforgiving and dramatically unfair attritional aspect of these Olympics.
A best-of-five final indicates that the Olympics (much as Masters events used to be when they had five-set finals as recently as 10 years ago) are a bigger deal than most other tournaments. Five-set finals and five-set matches show that a tournament is “not just an ordinary tournament.” Tennis should own that aspirational identity on select occasions.
The real issue (again, opinion and not fact) is that if the Olympics really do matter so much, and if we’re truly concerned about the toll tennis takes on players’ bodies, we’ll give players the ability to rest and recover after big tournaments (and between matches). Similarly, we’ll give players the ability to rest and prepare before big tournaments.
At an absolute bare minimum, a full extra week should have been cleared from the calendar before and after Rio, to enable Djokovic to rest between Canada and Brazil, and to allow Murray and Nadal to have a week to decompress before Cincinnati. All three men would have been able to play Canada, Rio and Cincinnati under such circumstances — there’s no guarantee they would have, but the scenario would have been far more realistic. As it is, none of the three will wind up playing all three events.
Tennis doesn’t win when that happens.
Bundled inside the reality that the Olympics demand “buffer weeks” of rest, both before and after, is the need for the Olympic tennis tournament to be staged over a week and a half, like Indian Wells and Miami. This is the solution to the problem which affected Delpo and Murray, who played best-of-three semis on Saturday and a best-of-five final on Sunday.
At the Olympics, first-round soccer matches are often played on the day before the opening ceremony. There is no real reason tennis can’t do the same. If the first tennis matches had been played on Thursday, August 4, the schedule could have worked out such that players in both the women’s and men’s draws could have played on an every-other-day schedule (like the majors), with the men’s gold medal match being on Monday, August 15, not Sunday the 14th.
Given that these are the Olympics, in which signature sporting events occur each day — Usain Bolt won gold in the 100-meter dash shortly after Murray won his gold medal — the idea that the tennis finals have to be played on Saturday and Sunday, just as they would at Wimbledon — lacks merit. Who cares?
If the Olympics were genuinely treated as a big deal, matches would be every other day; third sets would not have tiebreakers (or at least, not until 12-all, my recommended reform for the sport); and the five-set final could occur under more legitimate conditions. Furthermore, players would have almost a full week to decompress before moving to the next big tour stop.
As it is, a dead-tired Nadal and Murray are making their way to Cincinnati. Djokovic isn’t showing up (and even if he hadn’t been injured, no one should have blamed him one bit). Kei Nishikori, an historically injury-prone player, is hardly in ideal shape to contest the 1,000-point tournament in Ohio. This is not how it’s supposed to work.
It’s a lot of B.S. in a sport which crammed the Olympics between two important tour events as though it WAS “just another tournament.” Making the Olympics a true priority for players means enabling players to participate without sacrificing additional rankings points at other events. If no rankings points are awarded for the Olympics, players shouldn’t have to choose between the Games and Canada or Cincy… but they did.
Moreover, as the simple comparison between Djokovic (Canada champion) and Nadal and Murray (Olympic gold medalists) indicates, that choice proved to be hugely consequential.
And yet, despite the large servings of B.S. on hand in Rio, how can we walk away from Brazil and not think primarily of Puig, and Delpo, and Murray, and this 14-time major champion below?
Rafael Nadal entered Rio with questions about the wrist which forced him to withdraw from his beloved French Open and then miss Wimbledon. Forget the doubt an athlete carries into a playing arena in the weeks and months after an injury; the mere reality of rust — of not having played in a long time — works against the ability to play well in a first tournament after an injury-induced layoff.
Rafa merely won a gold medal and came within a handful of points of playing Murray for another gold in singles.
At a later stage in the tournament — when playing mixed doubles with Garbine Muguruza, men’s doubles in the final with Marc Lopez, and singles against Delpo — Nadal was forced to compete in nine sets in a period of roughly 25 hours. Yet, there he was in the third set of a long match against Del Potro, hitting outrageous running winners from defensive positions, recalling his halcyon days and the competitive spirit which has made him who he is.
It’s true that Olympic scheduling — within the tournament itself, and in terms of the larger tennis calendar — was not done well or artfully in 2016. It would be appreciated if the people who decide on tennis schedules at micro and macro levels could infuse a little more passion into their work.
Yet, for all that bullshit, the performances of Rafael Nadal Parera, and Juan Martin del Potro, and Angelique Kerber; 36-year-old silver medalist Venus Williams, gold medalist Jack Sock, and battle-scarred veteran Elena Vesnina; and most of all, Puerto Rico’s first-ever gold medalist in human history, Monica Puig, made it impossible to elevate the bad over the good at these Olympics.
Tennis’s best qualities and most special performances rose above the bullshit.
This sport, even when it can’t get out of its own way, especially at events which are supposed to be the biggest ones on the calendar, manages to leave us smiling.
It takes a special realm of human endeavor to be so overrun with massive flaws and yet still be an ultimately vibrant and positive part of our lives.
You could put it this way: The Rio Olympics have reminded us that for all its double faults, tennis remains a net-plus in our lives.