Tennis is an individual sport and across the world, loyalties and rivalries are characterized by individual players - Federer vs Nadal vs Djokovic, Williams vs Sharapova, and going back even further, Agassi vs Sampras and Evert vs Navratilova.
For a professional sport (since 1968 anyway), it did reasonably well to carve out a niche that goes beyond national loyalties. Fans across the world flock to cheer for their favorites. Yet, despite the likes of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer enjoying universal popularity, it is difficult to divorce partisan support from geographic location. On the clay of Roland Garros or under the sun in Melbourne, crowds will inadvertently hold a soft corner for home favorites and underdogs. Often, the two overlap.
Unlike sports like athletics, gymnastics or swimming, the pinnacle of tennis does not come about every four years in the form of the Olympic Games. Instead, one could argue, it comes about four times a year (five when the Olympiad is scheduled) at the Majors. Aspiring tennis superstars dream of holding aloft the Venus Rosewater Dish on Center Court, not necessarily standing atop a podium as their national anthem is played over the speaker.
While some may argue that professional sports with more prestige, like tennis or football, don’t ‘belong’ at the Olympics, few can contest that the former has generated enduring and iconic moments. The 2016 Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig, whose untimely retirement due to injury inspired me to write this piece, comes to mind. An unfancied entrant, Puig became the first unseeded player to claim the women’s singles gold as well as becoming the first gold medallist ever to represent Puerto Rico. Outside of her show at Rio, Puig never went past the fourth round of any Slam, yet her legacy as an icon from Puerto Rico will live on.
From Chinese doubles champions in 2004 to India’s Leander Paes, who, as a wild card, clinched a bronze at the Atlanta Olympiad - there is something about the Olympics that makes upsets common. Fernando Gonzalez and Nicolas Massu took on all-comers in 2004, winning doubles gold, while Massu took singles gold and Gonzalez took bronze.
While the pair were undoubtedly talented and Gonzalez followed this up with a silver at the Beijing games, they would never replicate this success when not being pushed an extra mile by the Chile flag on their chest. Understanding why would require a study that goes far beyond the competence of this writer, but one intuitive and intriguing idea stems from the extra motivation that comes from representing your country.
Tennis does have some team events, distributed across the calendar. The Davis Cup and Federation Cup are joined by the ATP Cup and the soon-to-be-restarted Hopman Cup. Yet, these competitions don’t consistently attract the best talent in tennis. Sure, Novak Djokovic laid bare a desire to lead Serbia to Davis Cup victory (which he did in 2010) but since then, his enthusiasm has waned. Rightly or wrongly, these competitions play second fiddle to individual events and are generally deemed far less prestigious than the Olympic Games.
Therein lies an interesting dilemma. Although Olympic medals contribute to the country's tallies at the Games, they also hold independent value. From Steffi Graf’s Golden Slam in 1988 to Roger Federer’s ill-fated pursuit of (singles) gold, adding a shiny medal to your multiple slams may be what sets you apart in the GOAT debate. Nadal, for instance, may point to his singles and doubles golds and Serena Williams to her "double gold" at the London Games in 2012.
Ultimately, I don't think the sport takes attention away from others at the Olympics in a way that detractors thought it would. While star power is certainly there, tennis has never been viewed as the main offering at the Games - it’s difficult to look beyond the swimming-athletics axis as a central attraction. At the same time, it offers athletes a chance to shine and a way to write their name in history - a one-time bronze medallist will be remembered more fondly than a one-time Grand Slam semifinalist. Tennis has its place in the Olympics.
Far from being overbearing, I think the sport brings its own unique narratives, its underdog stories and heartwarming tales of redemption. National heroes are often born at these Games and for tennis players focused on personal ambition, they provide a unique opportunity to win for themselves and for their country.