Net Worth: Has Tennis Finally Found Its Place in the Olympic Games?

The history of a perfectly imperfect union between tennis and the Olympics.
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Andy Murray and his Olympic bling. Image via Flickr.

Yesterday, Andy Murray, with the weight of a nation on his shoulders, stepped out onto Centre Court at Wimbledon. He was facing Roger Federer in a best-of-five tennis match with the title on the line.

Wait, weren’t we just here?

Indeed we were. Four weeks ago the tennis world watched as Murray, the perennial bridesmaid of men’s tennis, lost the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer. Afterwards, heartbroken, Murray cried endearingly on court.

The next day, while most of Britain was still drowning their sorrows over Andy Murray’s defeat, the notoriously stuffy All England Club handed over their exclusive keys to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to begin preparations for the London 2012 Olympics. Overnight, everything that was familiar and comforting about the Wimbledon Championships was thrown out the window. Olympic sponsors’ logos were plastered everywhere. The all-white dress code was temporarily demolished. Tacky and cheap-looking purple banners were haphazardly draped around the outside of the regal courts announcing London 2012.

But despite the cosmetic changes, the plots of the tournament remained thoroughly recognizable. In fact, Sunday saw two rematches of Wimbledon finals from the prior month (Women’s Doubles and Men’s Singles), with Serena Williams having already repeated both her doubles and singles titles from a month before. So,as Andy Murray warmed up with a red-clad Roger Federer across the net, it was hard to ignore the creeping sense of a cruel déjà vu. Why was this necessary?

The relationship between tennis and the Olympics has always been complicated. Since tennis careers are measured in Grand Slams, not medals, the questions linger: does tennis really belong in the Olympics? Does the fact that the Olympics is not the holy grail of tennis cheapen the Olympic spirit? Can the Olympics mean anything if they don’t mean everything? (Aren’t questions fun?)

Tennis was originally a part of the Summer Olympics back in the days of yore, but in 1924 a dispute between permanent sparring partners the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and IOC over amateur status and the increasingly crowded tennis calendar caused an insurmountable divide. For the next fifty years both organizations existed independently, and both absolutely flourished. With the help of television and commercialization, the popularity of the Olympics boomed. Meanwhile, the era of Open tennis turned the ATP and WTA into two of the most successful sports organizations in the world. Everyone was happy. Right?

But then Philippe Chatrier came along. (The French are always shaking things up.) When Chatrier became President of the ITF in 1977, he made it his mission to get tennis back into the Olympics. Why? Money and popularity, of course! While tennis was successful, it still wasn’t as popular internationally as he thought it could be. He felt that the only way to get new countries to financially support tennis was to get it reinstated into the Olympic Games. Though he was met with a lot of eye-rolling opposition, by 1988 tennis returned to the Summer Olympics in Seoul.

The remarriage was met with stubbornness from both sides. Despite making a fortune in sponsorships, the IOC was still determined to maintain an “amateur” feel for the games, which meant selling a brand of down-trodden athletes competing solely for the love of sport. Tennis players didn’t fit that bill. The stars of the game were making more money then ever and were used to being spectacles wherever they went. In order to participate in the Seoul Olympics the players had to forgo prize money and endorsement income from two weeks before the start of the Games through the closing ceremonies. That essentially meant they had to put their lucrative (and short) careers on hold for a full month. Most star players were not necessarily sending Chatrier thank-you notes.

Tennis players weren’t the only ones upset. Many journalists thought it ridiculous that such celebrity athletes were going to take attention away from the lesser-known competitors and upset the harmony and popularity of staple Summer Olympic sports such as swimming, gymnastics, and track and field. It was as if they were trampling all over the Olympic spirit.

But luckily for Chatrier, the mystique of the Olympics was powerful enough to sway a handful of the top competitors, and the tournament went on. The legendary Steffi Graf won the women’s gold medal, while the somewhat-less-legendary Miloslav Mecir won gold for the men. Doubles, the often forgotten stepchild of tennis, contested too. Overall the event was well received, if unremarkable. Most importantly it didn’t seem to steal the spotlight from anyone. The tennis tour continued to thrive, the status of the other Summer Olympic sports remained in tact, and the IOC invited the ITF back for the Barcelona games.

Now, twenty-four years and seven Olympic Games later, here we are. Though the aforementioned questions still linger, a series of compromises between the (bull-headed) IOC and the (self-serving) ITF have made the Olympics a much more attractive proposition for the top tennis players. They no longer have to forfeit a month of money. The event has been condensed to nine days. Though Grand Slams are still the bookmark of success, most top players—many of whom can’t remember a time when tennis wasn’t a part of the Olympics—make the Games a priority. The numbers speak for themselves. This year all of the top ten men and women competed in London (the redux), with the exception of Marion Bartloli (due to a dispute with the French Tennis Federation) and Rafael Nadal (due to injury). Comparatively, in 1988 only two of the top ten men competed. And though Chatrier probably never envisioned a Pimm’s-less Wimbledon, his broader wishes have come true: tennis is now a more international sport then ever. Tennis booms in countries such as Russia, China, Serbia, and Belgium might not have been possible without the lure of the Olympics.

And though the relationship is still a bit clumsy, the profile of tennis at the Olympics continues to grow by leaps and bounds. This year, eight tennis players were nominated to be flag bearers for their country. With players such as Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams fighting for medals on the historic lawns of Wimbledon, Olympics tennis has managed to grab headlines on news, sports, and entertainment websites around the globe. High-profile spectators, including Michelle Obama, Bill Gates, Kobe Bryant, Chelsea Handler and of course HRH Kate Middleton, have been highly rewarded for trekking through London traffic to get to the All England Club. The tournament was filled with magical Olympic moments.

On Court 1 on Sunday Juan Martin Del Potro, just two days after losing a marathon match to Federer in the semifinals, upset Novak Djokovic in the bronze medal match and dropped to his knees in sobs. He won the first medal for Argentina at these Games. Later that day on the same court the often-overshadowed Russian player Maria Kirilenko squealed and jumped for joy as she and partner Nadia Petrova captured the bronze medal in Women’s Doubles. Kirilenko had been having the tournament of her life, making the semis in Singles and Doubles, before going 0-3 in medal matches the prior two days. On Centre Court, Venus Williams, already a three-time Olympic Champion, capped off her remarkable comeback from Sjogren’s Syndrome by winning the Doubles Gold Medal. And on Saturday Serena Williams and the Bryan Brothers both captured the “Golden Slam” (all four Grand Slams, plus a Gold Medal.) Everywhere you looked the signs were loud and clear: tennis players had come down with a bad case of Olympic fever.

But even surrounded by all these magical Olympic moments, debates lived on. Tennis fans argued about the schedule, the ITF qualification rules, and the point distributions. And as the tennis players were eliminated from the Games it became once again apparent how different tennis was from the rest of the Olympic sports. Most players fled London and went straight to Canada to prepare for the Masters Series events in Toronto and Montreal. Those tournaments start today. The US Open is just around the corner. While other Olympic sports have to wait another four years for redemption, in tennis, there is always a tomorrow.

Just ask Andy Murray. One month after the most crushing defeat of his career he had a chance for a repeat. And as the match began, it became clear that the colorful courts weren’t the only thing different about this match. Wrapped up in a sense of pride and nationalism that was, for once, bigger then him, Murray played the type of commanding tennis he usually reserves for Grand Slam Quarterfinals and Masters Series Finals. Simply put, he dominated Roger Federer.

After he hit an ace down the middle to seal his straight sets upset and secure the Gold Medal, he dropped to his knees and cried—not tears of despair like he had a month ago, but rather tears of relief. Tears of a Champion. As a nation leapt to it’s feet and cheered in disbelief and Murray climbed into the Wimbledon stands to embrace his team, it became apparent that this was an Olympic moment for the ages. Suddenly it didn’t matter how this compared to a Grand Slam victory or how many points he got for the win. Andy Murray had a Gold Medal. He had beaten Roger Federer. He had reversed the script. Underdogs believed again. A nation was united. And, for a moment, tennis and the Olympics lived in perfect harmony.

          


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