Last week saw one of the closest reader polls in the The Toss’ history. SI.com tennis producer C.W. Sesno joined to debate which streak of seven was more impressive: Rafael Nadal’s seven straight Monte Carlo titles or Novak Djokovic’s seven straight wins over Nadal. The readers tipped Nadal, but barely, and then we got to see the two streaks clash in the Monte Carlo final.
This week, tennis blogger and Toss regular Ben Rothenberg returns for a closer look at some major Olympic news.
Today’s Toss: Is it a good move for top-ranked American Mardy Fish to skip the Olympics?
Courtney Nguyen: Thanks for joining me again for this week’s Toss, Ben. It’s been a week filled with a good amount of tennis news, from the loss of two North American tournaments (San Jose heads to Memphis, Memphis heads to Rio), to prize money hikes at Wimbledon. But one of the most surprising announcements came from Mardy Fish, who announced his intention to play the CitiOpen in Washington D.C. this summer, which effectively meant he planned to skip the London Olympics (the tournaments are held during the same week). During a year when every player has expressed their unabashed excitement and desire to compete in London, Fish’s decision was a shocking one. I mean, it’s the Olympics! Who doesn’t want to play at the Olympics?
I admit, that was definitely my immediate reaction upon hearing the news, but once I settled down and thought about it, Fish’s decision makes sense. First and foremost, it sounds like the fatigue that ruled him out of Davis Cup is more serious than anything that can be cured by sitting on a beach for a week. Fish said this week that doctors are still running tests to figure out what happened and he’s not sure when he’ll be able to return to the tour. At this point, considering his results on clay I’d be surprised to see him at Roland Garros. His confidence is in the tank, his health is questionable and making an early return to the tour just seems ill-advised.
It’s likely he’ll head into Wimbledon with very little match play, if at all, which puts him in a tough predicament. Do you go to the Olympics under these circumstances, knowing that you’re taking a spot away from someone else who may be in better shape to compete hard and maybe — just maybe — wants it more than you? Fish already tasted his Olympic glory in Athens in 2004, winning a silver medal. Why taint that memory of your Olympic experience by joining what will be an even tougher field, enduring more pressure now than you did back then? He’s already got that silver medal and anything less than that would be a disappointment. I just don’t think that would be a particularly fun experience for Mardy.
In the big scheme of things, Fish needs wins. He needs matches. If that means skipping the high-quality field in London in order to play the weakened fields in North America to prepare for the U.S. Open, I think that’s a good call. Look, while tennis in the Olympics are gaining traction in terms of their importance to tennis players, the fact is it still doesn’t have the gravitas of a Slam. Fish is putting himself in a great position to have the time to heal up, get some wins under his belt over the summer and go into the U.S. Open with some momentum.
Ben Rothenberg: Thanks for rolling out the carpet for me again, Courtney. I do enjoy these return trips to the friendly confines of Beyond The Baseline.
But you know where I don’t think Mardy Fish enjoys return trips to? The Olympics. You phrased Mardy Fish’s silver medal as tasting Olympic glory, but I look at it more as him having to swallow Olympic agony of defeat. He was up two sets to one over Nicolas Massu in the gold medal match in Athens and lost. That had to be tough, especially seeing how much it changed Massu’s life. While finishing in second may seem like glory in the rearview mirror, Olympic tennis is set up in such a way that gold and bronze are won and silver is lost. Fish not liking the Olympics for that reason is understandable, and fits into patterns I’ve read about from other silver medalists in other sports. Since this is likely to be his last Olympiad as a pro, I wish he’d give it another shot (though I understand why it might be painful).
You also mention his recent fatigue and illness problems which surfaced in Miami and put his return in doubt for at least the next month. While fatigue makes lessening his schedule a good decision, it was clear he had made up his mind about the Olympics well before these issues. I had heard from a source (I rarely get to cite anonymous sources — humor me) as early as last December that Mardy wasn’t planning on playing the Olympics, despite being the No. 1 American and coming off a career year in 2011. I hadn’t even considered before that he would skip (though he did pass in 2008 as well), so I was fairly surprised when I heard.
I was especially surprised because of the unique circumstances of these Olympic Games, with the relative convenience of playing at Wimbledon on a surface he’s had decent success on. Whereas jetting off to Beijing was a big ask in 2008, these Olympics aren’t that far away at all. As far as overseas travel goes, it doesn’t get any easier for Americans culturally or distance-wise to go to London. And considering Fish picked a 250 in Marseille over a 500 in Memphis in February, I don’t think Fish can be said to be averse to international travel.
What I think this move came down to for Fish was money. While the money is a completely understandable motivator (I have little experience turning down six-figure checks myself), it’s still sort of a disappointment when it comes to the Olympics and all that it’s supposed to stand for as a pure, international sporting event. By headlining sparse fields in Washington (and presumably) Los Angeles, Fish is securing himself a good chunk of money, and (he hopes) ranking points that will keep his ranking in high, incentive-laden territory. It’s not the kind of money that he would receive (indirectly) for winning Olympic gold, but it’s a factor that he has to personally take seriously, especially as a guy on the back half of his career.
But all that said, I’m glad Fish made it clear he’s out of the Olympics now rather than later. When Jennifer Capriati withdrew from the 2004 Olympic Games at the last minute, she didn’t leave enough time for the next American in line (Jill Craybas) to enter. Fish making his non-attendance clear now gives players Americans behind him in line like Ryan Harrison, Donald Young and even possibly James Blake time to prepare and try to qualify.
I would have loved to see Fish take a shot at playing what will likely be his last chance at the Olympics. But at least he pulled out far enough in advance to allow the Americans to try to get another player in the field.
Nguyen: There’s definitely something to be said about the money. We don’t like to think of our athletes making decisions — especially tennis players, who typically play for prize money as opposed to guaranteed cash — based on money. But hey, Mardy isn’t a young buck. He’s having the most success of his career at 30 years old, a time when players who aren’t named “Roger” are often on a downward slope. Is he supposed to keep blindly chasing glory or plan for the future and acknowledge that these opportunities of going on a cash grab are few and far between?
I get your point that his silver medal is, in fact, a result of a loss. But isn’t that memory still better than what’s likely to happen in London? The fact is the guy has a silver medal in Olympic singles. That’s more than Andy Roddick has, or Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, or Serena Williams. That’s a tremendous accomplishment. Why taint it? The reality is that Mardy would need to win the gold in order to eclipse his 2004 Athens result.
You make a good point about the information about Mardy questioning his Olympic participation as early as December. He was clearly tinkering with the idea of skipping London before he was stricken down with fatigue. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t already know he was on a half empty tank. Fish limped into the World Tour Finals in November and barely got a month’s rest before competing at Hopman Cup. He got virtually no rest in the offseason and it showed in the results.
I mean, shouldn’t we give Fish credit for being a realist? So many athletes are completely delusional when it comes their prospects or potential. Fish is basically saying, “Look, the field is too good and I’m ill-prepared to make a solid run at a medal.” In a sport full of egos and idiocy, there’s something tremendously admirable about that honesty. And like I said, Fish making the quarterfinals or semis of the U.S. Open more than trumps a second-round exit from the London games. Heal up, prepare during the U.S. Open Series, and make a run at the U.S. Open. These must be the post-it notes that lay all over the Fish household these days.
Rothenberg: Fish is certainly being a realist, that I’ll give you. But isn’t delusional optimism what sports are all about to a certain degree? The Gustavo Kuertens and George Masons of sports history are what it’s all about, and he hasn’t lost at the Olympics until he’s actually lost at the Olympics. If men’s tennis tournaments today were only entered by men who had a realistic shot to win the whole thing, events would be very small.
And Fish landing the big one in London isn’t as ridiculous a tale as it might seem. The guy made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon last year (topping defending finalist Tomas Berdych in straight sets en route), and has always done well in best-of-three events on quick surfaces. If he played only singles, he would stay more rested than all the other guys trying to cram in two (and maybe even three) events.
And if Mardy does lose early? Whatever. It’s just another loss. He will have had worse losses this year (remember Albano Olivetti, anyone?). In terms unspecific to his case, quitting in the face of losing, or even just being the underdog, shouldn’t be applauded.
What does Fish gain from sitting out the Olympics altogether? Aside from the cash and rankings incentives I mentioned earlier, sure, he gives himself less travel and more practice on American hard courts, which might theoretically prepare him better for the conditions of the U.S. Open than playing the Olympics.
But there’s a precedent for what Fish is doing. As the American No. 1 in 2008, Andy Roddick skipped the Olympics in Beijing to play in Los Angeles and Washington. How did it go for him? Not excellently. First he got routed by Juan Martin del Potro (before the guy had ever made so much as a Slam quarterfinal) in the final of Los Angeles. Then he lost to a then-93rd-ranked-unknown Viktor Troicki in the quarterfinals of Washington, losing the match after winning the first set 6-0 in what he would later refer to as one of the worse losses of his career. He then went on to lose to Djokovic in a contentious U.S. Open quarterfinal. Those seem like results he’d trade for another shot at Olympic glory.
That 2008 tournament in Washington was the first ATP tournament I had ever covered, and I remember Roddick talking somewhat longingly about watching the awesome Beijing opening ceremonies that he skipped participating in to be in Washington. When he lost that week, he was more frustrated than I’d ever seen him. To lose to Troicki in a small tournament the very same week his friend James Blake had beaten Roger Federer and made a run to the medal rounds of the Olympics couldn’t have been fun.
I’ve never asked him about it, but I’m guessing that Roddick might look back on the decisions he made in 2008 with some regret. Will Fish do the same? For me, it’s hard to imagine not.
You decide: Vote in the poll above and sound off in the comments below to let us know what you think of Fish’s decision.