Nine days, five events, 15 medals. When the Centre Court dust settled after two days of marquee matches, there were no epic struggles for supremacy that resulted in matches that we’ll remember forever. Instead, the Olympic tennis event ended with two dominant performances that will have people buzzing for days, if not weeks. One came from an expected source, a tried-and-true American champion soaring with confidence. The other came from a fuzzy-haired, odd-man out, who returned to the place of heartbreak to decisively cast out his demons.
Some thoughts on what was a thoroughly entertaining tennis competition before getting back the business of the tour.
Serena and Venus make good: The accomplishments are many and they are, whether in context or without, jaw-dropping. Two African-American sisters, forged on the cracked concrete of Compton, Calif., take up a sport made famous by all-white dress codes and rooted in tradition, and go on to win 21 Grand Slam singles titles, 13 Grand Slam doubles titles and now, after defeating the Czech team of Lucie Hradecka and Andrea Hlavackova 6-4, 6-4 in the women’s doubles final, three straight gold medals in Olympic doubles. And just to complete the game-changer storyline, Serena and Venus Williams have dominated no other venue on the tour the way they have owned Centre Court at the All England Club.
The win caps a golden week — heck, a golden month — for the Williams family. Serena completed the career Golden Slam by winning her first gold medal in singles with a merciless display of movement and power as she left Maria Sharapova thoroughly red-faced, handing her a 6-0, 6-1 defeat with a silver medal as consolation. Serena is in top form, no doubt, and when she is she is hair, head and shoulders better than everyone else and it’s not even close.
But before we drown Serena in praise that she so richly deserves (in the last month she has beaten the other four members of the top five in resounding fashion), let’s take a moment to appreciate what Venus was able to do in the last six months. Venus admitted that the only reason she decided to accelerate her comeback after being diagnosed with Sjogren’s syndrome last September was to make the Olympics. Ranked No. 134 in March when she returned to the tour in Miami, Venus got her ranking into the top 56 by the French Open to qualify. It was never easy for Venus, who had to learn for the first time how to manage her autoimmune disease while playing the professional circuit. There were good days (wins over Petra Kvitova and Sam Stosur) and there were bad days, days when the will was there but the body was not. When I told her in Rome that her quarterfinal run got her into the ranking cut-off, she was speechless and teary, beaming with a smile that lit up the dingy and near empty press room just outside the Foro Italico.
But there she stood on Sunday next to her kid sister, the woman who has for so long set the standard for what women’s tennis can be, beaming that million-watt smile as yet another gold medal was draped around her neck and The Star-Spangled Banner played. Midway through the anthem, Serena leaned into Venus, rested her head on her shoulder and big sister cocked her head and did the same. These two women, revolutionaries in their own right and standard-bearers of grass-court tennis, American tennis and everything in between, have been through hell and back to get to this day. Their strength of character would not be denied.
Andy Murray steps up for Britain: Murray has always been cursed with bad timing, tagged with the unwanted label of being one of those remarkable players who was just born at the wrong time, into an era of remarkable contemporaries the likes of which we may never see again. Exactly four weeks ago today, after losing the Wimbledon final to Roger Federer, he stood under the roof of Centre Court and tearfully told Sue Barker of the BBC and the world that he was getting closer, gave a heartfelt thank you to the British public for the support that means so much to him, and couldn’t even bear to glance at his players’ box for fear of looking into the eyes of the men and women in his life whom he felt he let down. The young man who’s been unfairly branded “the dour Scot,” “the miserable git” (that’s not a compliment, apparently) and “a drama queen” was forced to bear his soul to his countrymen and apparently that’s all they needed to see. Out of that now viral moment, Murray’s public image was transformed. The British public showered him with love, and that was evident when he returned to the All England Club on a quest for a once-in-a-lifetime achievement: a gold medal at his home Olympics.
In retrospect, no one, not even Murray himself, could script this any better. He navigated a tricky draw and then stood toe-to-toe with Novak Djokovic in the semifinal and never once doubted himself. He did not waver or do the things that we had become so used to seeing from him in high-pressure moments. Having assured himself a medal with his 7-5, 7-5 win, he would face the man who has dashed his dreams of Slam glory three times already. A cynic might say that Murray felt less pressure on Sunday having known he would walk away with nothing less than a silver. A believer might say Murray had gained immeasurable confidence from his Wimbledon loss, having learned that if he put all the pieces together he could in fact beat Federer in a best-of-five final on grass.
But in this case, the “how” and the “why” are irrelevant compared to the “what.” And what Murray did was play a near perfect match to hand Federer one of his most decisive losses in a best-of-five-set final, a 6-2, 6-1, 6-4 clinic in aggressive, counterpunching tennis. Murray soared before a partisan crowd that made the Wimbledon final feel like it was played in a library. This time there would be no river of tears afterward, only the widest perma-grin he’s ever revealed in public. There was no compulsion to avoid his camp but a need to celebrate with them, as he climbed the stands to plant a wet one on girlfriend Kim Sears and hug his team and family. And instead of apologizing to all of Britain for falling short yet again, he turned back to hug a young boy who was in near tears, a youngster who caught his attention by crying his name at the top of his lungs.
Murray’s timing has never been perfect. You couldn’t help but watch the scenes on Centre Court and wish that this had happened a month ago for him and for the country. But, hey, Murray has always said that he’s a bit of late bloomer. Better late than never.
The triumphant return of mixed doubles: Mixed doubles returned to the Olympics for the first time in 88 years and though it featured a tiny 16 team-draw, it was the only event of the competition that truly felt, well, Olympic, and by that I mean that it felt unique and therefore special. After all, if tennis at the Olympics is meant to be elevated to something akin to a “Fifth Slam,” surely it should mirror the majors, too, and that’s where mixed came in.
The results showed just how interesting mixed doubles can be. Victoria Azarenka and Max Mirnyi, who have won a major title together before, showed their class as top seeds to win gold, with Wimbledon champions and doubles specialists Lisa Raymond and Mike Bryan claiming the bronze. Then you had Murray teaming up with Laura Robson, two players who devote more of their time to singles, but who made a surprise run to win silver.
The event is good for the game of doubles, giving specialists another platform to show their craft. And perhaps even more important, it’s a reminder to younger players of the importance of having an all-around game. Want to be a power baseliner and ignore the net? Say goodbye to any chances of a medal in mixed doubles at the Olympics. Maybe that will teach the kids to learn a proper volley.
The futility of fourth: At Grand Slam tournaments, the ultimate goal is the title. But finish short of that and your results are still remembered. We remember runners-up, semifinalists, even quarterfinalists and players who had great runs but fell short in the early rounds. The Olympics? It may be cruel, but your results won’t cause a ripple unless you’ve got a precious medal hanging from your neck.
So let’s take a moment to acknowledge Novak Djokovic (men’s singles), Maria Kirilenko (women’s singles), Raymond and Liezel Huber (women’s doubles), Feliciano Lopez and David Ferrer (men’s doubles), and Sabine Lisicki and Christopher Kas (mixed doubles), all of whom lost the bronze-medal match in their respective events. Djokovic reportedly said the loss to Juan Martin del Potro was one of the most difficult moments of his career. Lisicki was sobbing tears before she even got to the net to congratulate the victors, Raymond and Mike Bryan. (That bronze gave Raymond some consolation, just as Kirilenko received a bronze in doubles). But will the larger public remember Lopez and Ferrer, who had a tremendous tournament together to even make the medal round? Or Lisicki and Kas, who upset the top-seeded Huber and Bob Bryan to make the semifinals? Probably not. Sucks to be fourth.
Tennis makes its case: After seeing the excitement generated by having tennis at the Olympics, it’s pretty hard to argue that the sport doesn’t belong there. We’re way past the arguments about amateurs vs. professionals, and given the incredible amount of Instagramming during the games, there’s no doubt the other athletes love having the tennis players around.
Meanwhile, the sport benefited from the Olympic platform. NBC reported that the women’s final between Serena and Sharapova drew 7.9 million viewers, almost twice what ESPN attracted for the Wimbledon women’s final and significantly more than what it got for the Wimbledon men’s final, too. So let’s flip the question: Do the Olympics belong in tennis? We’ve already got a flurry of high-profile withdrawals from the Rogers Cup in Canada and we’ll see if the players are completely disrupted by the physical and emotional expenditure of competing as they lead up to the U.S. Open in a few weeks.