Tears and Glory: An Olympic Notebook

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Photo by Getty

Bill Simons

In light of the postponement of Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic games to 2021, we have put together, with sadness, this notebook.

TENNIS’ MOST NOBLE OLYMPIC COMMENTARY: Due to apartheid, South Africa had long been banned from the Olympics. Then, when the country was allowed back in, Wayne Ferreira won a doubles silver medal. He commented, “This medal stands for the political change on the land and the courage to fight for it.”

QUOTEBOOK:

  • “It’s a good way to meet girls.” – Andy Roddick, who we hope was joking, on why he went to the Olympics 
  • “I’ve already won 12 Grand Slams – another Grand Slam here or there doesn’t make that much of a difference. It’s nice to get Slams, but the Olympic Games are something I have never been able to get.” – Roger Federer before the 2008 U.S. Open
  • “I will never forget the tears of joy of Federer winning the gold medal for the doubles. Here you have the man who is arguably…the best-ever tennis player…and he was crying.” – International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge on his favorite moment in Beijing 
  • “The Olympics are my most amazing moment. It’s even above a Grand Slam.” – 1996 gold medalist Lindsay Davenport
  • “The gold medal match [in Rio] between Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro waless a tennis match than a four-hour infomercial for adrenaline.” – Jon Wertheim
  •  “If you don’t believe in the Olympics, then I don’t think you are an athlete. I don’t think you know what it means to be a part of sports, to not want to come here and compete against the world in this kind of format…The Olympics represent what sports are all about — human challenge and triumph. The reward is pride, not anything material.” – Andre Agassi,  after becoming in 1994 the first U.S. player since 1924 to win the men’s singles gold medal 
  • “Phooey on all the criers who said tennis shouldn’t be in the Olympics.” – Rennae Stubbs, after the scintillating 2016 games
  • “It’s absolutely crazy to have Davis Cup during an Olympic year.” – Chris Fowler

QUICK, CALL THE LAUNDROMAT POLICE! British gold-medal cyclist Jamie Staff, who spotted Rafa Nadal in Beijing’s Olympic Village, shared this tale: “I was in the laundry and realized I was standing right next to Nadal. I didn’t bother him, but he was shoving all his colors and whites in together. I really wanted to say, ‘Dude, you’re going to have a nightmare with that. You can’t just put the whole bag in – there are reds in with whites.’ But what can you do?”

SAY IT ISN’T SO: Serena said she was too tired to attend the Olympic opening ceremonies because she gets sleepy at 7 PM…Marcelo Rios refused to carry the Chilean banner in Sydney’s opening ceremonies because his family didn’t get tickets…Sloane Stephens said the worst decision of her career was playing in the Olympics with a broken foot…After winning the 2019 Aussie Open, Naomi Osaka was asked, “How will it feel to be the face of the Tokyo Olympics?”…In 2016 ten of the ATP’s top 25 players didn’t go to Rio…In 2016 the ITF banned Seles, Navratilova and Gabriela Sabatini from the Olympics because they didn’t compete in the 1991 Fed Cup.

ROLEX-TOUTING HOOLIGANS: In 1996 a riot nearly broke out at Stone Mountain, Georgia, when an Agassi doubles match was moved out of the stadium court. All this prompted Bill Dwyre to note: “The question that quickly popped to mind: Had any of those people ever seen Agassi play doubles? Do they know it is not a pretty sight, not worth rioting over?” Riot police were called in, but eventually, noted Dwyre, “The hooligans, in designer Filas and Rolex watches, got their way,” and the match was put back on the stadium court.

GREATEST PLAYERS IN THE MODERN ERA TO HAVE NEVER WON SINGLES GOLD: Federer, Djokovic, Sampras, Navratilova, Seles, and Hingis.

THE OLYMPIC EFFECT: Everything changed in tennis as it became an Olympic sport. The move kick started the internationalization of a game that is now, behind soccer, the second most popular sport around the world. The Olympics were critical to the growth of tennis in Russia and China, which used a key doubles win to spread the sport to millions. Barcelona hosting the 1992 games led locals to create an extensive hard court tennis center that became critical to the extraordinary surge in the Spanish game.

MISSING MEDALS: When a security alarm went off in Mike Bryan’s house, the first thing he wondered was whether his gold medal was still on his bureau – it was…Nicolas Massu left his gold and silver medals under his pillow at the Olympic Village…Lindsay Davenport lost her gold medal. Eventually, her mom found it in her garage.

PATRIOT GAMES: Goran Ivanisevic said, “To carry the Croatian flag for the first time in the Olympic Games, this is a heavy thing…To maybe be the first athlete from your country to win an Olympic medal, this is pressure. The Croatians are fighting for freedom, and I am fighting to be their first athlete to win a medal. I have to fight, I have to die, nothing else matters.” In contrast, the late great writer Frank DeFord threw shade on the intense nationalism of the games: “Sports is not supposed to be an excuse for jingoism. If some athletes really don’t want to participate in the Olympics, move on from them and find some who do – without making others feel like traitors. The Games are supposed to be about excellence, not anthems.” Bill Dwyre made a similar point: “We get so much nationalism shoved down our throats by NBC that occasionally rooting for somebody from Ethiopia to hit a winning backhand feels kind of nice.”

MEDAL HAULS: Venus has won four gold medals and one silver. Serena has four golds. In all the years tennis was in the Olympics (1896-1924, 1988-2016) the gold medal count is: United States 21, Britain 17, France 5, Russia and South Africa 3, Spain, Switzerland, Germany and Chile 2. 

TORCH BEARERS: Guga Kuerten carried the Olympic flame into Rio’s Olympic stadium in 2016 and Maria Sharapova carried it in the 2016 winter games. Tim Henman ran with it down St. Mary’s Walk at Wimbledon just before the Olympics in 2004. 

FLAG BEARERS: Argentina’s Gabriella Sabatini in 1988, Croatia’s Goran Ivanisevic in 1992, Nicolas Massu in 2000, Roger Federer in 2004 and 2008, Novak Djokovic and Maria Sharpova in 2012 and Rafa Nadal in 2016.

BEST OLYMPIC CONNECTION WITH BOG SNORKELING: After yet another Tim Henman Wimbledon loss, a London headline read, “Extreme Ironing, Anyone? (It’s All We’re Good At) Never Mind: There’s Still the Olympics for Us to Lose, Cheer Up, England Are Still Champs (at Bog Snorkeling)”

CRITICS ABOUND: From the start of tennis in the modern Olympics in 1984 (when the Olympics was an exhibition for amateurs only) there have been critics. Bud Collins said it didn’t belong. He claimed, “We all know genuine amateurs are harder to find at the Olympics than Guccis in Mother Teresa’s wardrobe. I could never understand why tennis leaders lavished so much time and money on trying to be accepted again in a fraudulent show.” 1992 doubles silver medalist Michael Stich skipped the 1996 games, commenting, “I don’t think that tennis belongs in the Olympics. For us, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open – these are much more important. Track and field athletes and swimmers train for four years to go and that’s the highlight of their careers.” Ernests Gulbis said he wouldn’t be playing the Olympics because they didn’t provide money or points. “It’s a little bit like tennis tourism,” quipped the Latvian. 

In contrast, many players, like Serena, Agassi, Davenport and the Bryans, have said that winning gold was the most important triumph of their careers.

A TALE OF TWO CULTURES: Perhaps tennis has never seen such a stunning difference in national cultures as when the 15-year-old German Steffi Graf faced the Italian Raffaella Reggi in the semis of the 1984 exhibition at UCLA. Indrawn, expressionless and all business, Graf was the fierce epitome of Aryan intent. In contrast, Reggie offered non-stop gestures and an entertaining string of emotional, almost operatic commentaries.

DO YOU BUY THIS ALIBI? When trailing 9-8 in the final set of his Olympic semi, James Blake hit a passing shot that replays indicated might well have grazed Fernando Gonzalez’s racket before sailing long. Despite Blake’s protest, Gonzalez won the point and went on to win the match. Blake said it was disappointing “when you not only lose the match, but you lose a little faith in your fellow competitor.” Gonzo insisted he had nothing to apologize for. “There are 200 points in a match and they are only talking about one. He’s the one with the problem.” 

A MOMENT TO REMEMBER: Andy Murray became the only player to ever win singles gold back-to-back. Monica Puig to win a gold medal a for Puerto Rico. Gigi Fernandez who is Puerto Rican, and Mary Joe Fernandez, who was born in the Domincan Republic, won in both 1992 and 1996.

THE REDEMPTIVE QUALITY OF GOLD: Russian Elena Dementieva reached the finals at the French and US Open and the semis at Wimbledon and the Aussie, yet never won a Slam. But winning gold in 2008 was a moment of pure redemption.

STARSTRUCK: Michael Phelps, who won a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Games, was elated at meeting Nadal in Rio. He confided, “Rafa is probably the only person I wanted to meet.”

 

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