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In Defence Of Olympic Tennis
Humanity shines when cheering on and celebrating the success of others
Olympic tennis has an odd place in the minds of many fans. Tennis was removed as an Olympic sport after the 1924 games, due to a dispute between the International Lawn Tennis Federation and the International Olympic Committee over how to define amateur players, before finally being reinstated in 1988. For a seriously large chunk of Olympic history, tennis simply wasn’t along for the ride. Olympic tennis, governed by the ITF, also has an inconsistent past when it comes to awarding ATP and WTA ranking points — points were given from 2004 to 2012 but not before or after — a decision which players have not historically been thrilled by. Ernest Gulbis once said that the decision (or in reality the inability for the ATP and the ITF to agree on anything) for an absence of ranking points and prize money left the event as nothing more than ‘tennis tourism’. One can also make the argument that sports like tennis, which have existing regular tours and structures for achievement that don’t rely on building up to a quadrennial Olympic event, have less value at the Games than disciplines that see the Olympics as the pinnacle of their competition.
Tokyo 2020/21 in particular is also going through one of the largest stress tests imaginable for an event this size. Held amidst a global pandemic, on the back of an extraordinarily tiring and tough 18 months for the entire world, without fans and a depleted (tennis) field. It would be easy to look at the Games and feel jaded or conflicted. After all, Olympic tennis, for many fans of this sport, still doesn’t compare to the four Slams that occupy so much of the average tennis fan’s consciousness.
But Olympic tennis *is* different from the regular tour, in both substance and in meaning. As such there really is little point comparing the two.
In a way there’s a rather nice purity surrounding tennis at the Olympics thanks to the absence of ATP and WTA ranking points and prize money, even if some players aren’t so thrilled. Tennis players at the Games are therefore motivated by little else other than sporting greatness and representing their country. It’s also one of the rare events in tennis, usually a chronically individual sport, where players explicitly play for something significantly greater than themselves. This uniqueness manifests in interesting ways. For example, unlikely winners are more common than at tennis’ other premier events, with many recent gold medalists counting the win as the greatest achievement in their career by far. Marc Rosset (1992), Miloslav Mečíř (1988) Elena Dementieva (2008), Monica Puig (2016), and Nicolás Massú (2004) all posses Olympic singles gold medals despite never winning a Slam.
At its heart, Olympic tennis is great for the same reasons any Olympic sport is great. Identity and community. Players belong and compete in something larger than their own individual careers. Fans watch athletes, who they share parts of their identity with via their national community, being brilliant at something. The Olympics in its simplest form is a necessary reminder to those watching at home of what’s possible. A great representation of people like them, often from the same villages, backgrounds, circumstances as themselves, excelling. Athletes and fans sharing in that excellence, a deeply wholesome vicariousness, is a happy and hopeful experience which the world certainly needs more of right now.
Patriotism, while being thoroughly unfashionable in parts of the western world at the moment (sometimes for good reason), underpins much of the atmosphere that takes hold of and amplifies the Olympics. And I will always maintain that cheering on and celebrating others’ success is an area where humanity can unashamedly shine. Because while the Olympic format is certainly zero-sum in that only one team or athlete can win gold, the earnest roar of millions of fans cheering on the success of others, in one large appreciation party of what humans are capable of, feels like one of the more utopian directions for collective, rather than individual, existence. I’m sure there are many more evolved forms of community than arbitrarily supporting someone from the same country as you, but for now at least the Olympics and its leveraging of shared communities and identities can still be a force for good, and a force for hope. A positive, united intermission for each country which spends much of its time disunited.
Monica Puig after winning tennis gold for Puerto Rico in Rio five years ago:
“The island overall loves sports, and I think my win really united a whole nation. I was even told that for one evening, when I played, there were no reports of domestic violence or crime. No one was in the streets, they were watching anywhere with screens -- at their homes with their family, at bars, anywhere. I have videos of how crazy people were going after I won. It was so beautiful to see how this really impacted the island, and it meant so, so much to me.”
Puig’s win in Rio five years ago represents the only gold medal in Puerto Rican history. Nicolás Massú is one of only two Chilean athletes to ever win gold. And should Novak Djokovic win singles or doubles gold this year he would be looking to win just Serbia’s 4th gold medal in Olympic history. These achievements, experienced intensely by both nation and individual, are precious in a different way to most normal tennis trophies.
The success is shared. We celebrate each other. Everybody wins.
If you have any questions on the above, let me know in the comments. No question is dumb.
I’ll see you on Sunday
The Racquet goes out twice a week, a (free) topical piece every Thursday and a (paid) analysis piece every Sunday/Monday.
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Top: Puig wins the gold medal match, Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty
Bottom: Puig celebrates with her medal. MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty