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Tennis

Rafael Nadal a victim of circumstance and his own success in Rio

There’ll never be one Olympian to rule them all, but it’s fair to say no one prides themselves on representing their country more than Rafael Nadal. Despite his wrist injury and not being fully healed, he elected to play all three events at the Rio Games because of the chance that it might be his final opportunity given that a lot can happen in fo, but on Thursday, Nadal’s team decided adding mixed doubles would simply be too much.

The frustrating part is that it could’ve been avoided.

Tennis and the Olympics together is the confluence of two entities that are adept at shooting themselves in the foot. In tennis, there’s the failure to adjust the Olympic-year schedule and other issues like having one semifinalist play in the day and the other play at night, leading to imbalanced finals the next day. As for the Olympics, look no further than preventing reigning all-around gymnastics champion Gabby Douglas from attempting to repeat, all just because she happens to be from the same country as Simone Biles and Aly Raisman.

With that in mind, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Olympic tennis botched a golden opportunity with one of the clear faces of the sport’s Mount Rushmore wanting to play as much as he possibly could and pull off the accomplishment of a lifetime. After a gritty 7-6 (5), 6-4 win over Gilles Simon in singles and a clutch 7-6 (1), 7-6 (4) victory with Marc Lopez in doubles over Canada’s Dan Nestor and Vasek Pospisil (on a tiny outer court where spectators tore through covers to be able to see), Nadal would have had to play his third match of the day to kick off a brief mixed doubles campaign with Garbine Muguruza, but Toni Nadal, Rafa’s coach and uncle, said the doctors recommended otherwise, forcing Team Spain to wave the white flag.

Lost in the talk of Nadal withdrawing is that had Muguruza not lost in singles, she too would have had three matches in one day. When Rio approached, the two teams tennis fans were giddy to see were Roger Federer with Martina Hingis and Nadal with Muguruza. Lingering effects from his knee surgery cost Federer what are likely his final Olympics, leaving just the Spaniards. Instead, Nadal had to prioritize his singles bid and doubles gold medal match.

The solution? Well, the tennis started on Saturday and carry through this Sunday. That’s nine days (though Wednesday was wiped out by rain) to account for singles players with six rounds, doubles with five and mixed doubles with four. Mixed is clearly the inferior event, something of an afterthought due to the fluky nature of pairing players who only play a few times a year at most (Grand Slams plus the IPTL and Hopman Cup exhibitions), so doubles certainly would have started first. If the doubles had been played with fewer days off, the semifinals could have been known before finalizing the mixed draw, meaning every doubles player would either have been eliminated or have two matches left (the semifinal losers still play for bronze), making availability much clearer for those still in other draws.

Instead, the men’s doubles ends on Friday for reasons no one can quite understand, including Nadal, who made his confusion known. With the Slams too important for the top players to also play doubles, this was the one competitive setting where fans had a chance to see a Hall of Famer go for an unprecedented feat, as well as seeing Nadal and Muguruza play together. Nothing to do at this point but cross fingers for Tokyo.

Also in Rio

-Nadal and Lopez face Florin Mergea and Horia Tecau for doubles gold on Friday. The bronze match is interesting as well, as the U.S. and Canada face off to snag a spot on the podium, with former doubles partners Jack Sock and Pospisil on opposite sides. Sock’s partner Stevie Johnson is also alive in singles, facing Andy Murray.

-Murray didn’t get to the quarterfinals without a scare though, as a dominating first set over Fabio Fognini was followed by eight straight games for the Italian hothead. In classic Fognini fashion though, his 3-0 third set lead vanished, as Murray swept the final six games. Fognini’s indifference in certain matches becomes more understandable after seeing falter under pressure. He really does want to win, but it’s clear the pain of losing makes him go into his shell, as it can’t hurt if you don’t fully invest.

-Nadal will face local favorite Thomaz Bellucci, whose Cinderella run continued with a 7-6 (10), 6-4 upset over David Goffin. Goffin reinforced his reputation by twice losing a break in the opening set and failing to convert set points in a tense and tight tiebreaker.

Gael Monfils continued his strong form, coming from a set down to beat Marin Cilic. He’ll face Kei Nishikori in a blockbuster quarterfinal.

-The final men’s quarter features Juan Martin del Potro versus Roberto Bautista Agut. Del Potro rebounded from a lost tiebreaker to dispatch Japan’s Taro Daniel.

-All four women’s quarterfinals featured a dominating performance. Angie Kerber (over Jo Konta), Madison Keys (over Dashka Kasatkina), Petra Kvitova (over Elina Svitolina) and Monica Puig (over Laura Siegemund) each lost no more than four games.

-Mixed doubles got underway with the French superteams folding again. After stunning first round upsets in doubles, France had the top two seeds in mixed, but both Nicolas Mahut/Caroline Garcia and Pierre-Hugues Herbert/Kiki Mladenovic lost their openers.

-In non-Rio news, Serena Williams took a wildcard to re-enter Cincinnati. Williams’ health remains to be seen, but she clearly wants to protect the No. 1 ranking from Kerber.

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