Olympic Tennis has had a lot of ups and downs. During some Olympic years, the tennis events have seemed at best like a 500 point tour level tournament while other years have produced high drama for the sport. With Davis Cup, Federation Cup, Hopman Cup, World Team Cup, and tennis’ four majors being held on three continents, it is a valid question to ask if tennis should be in the Olympics. Every tournament, with the possible exception of Atlanta this week, has a United Nations feel to it. I used to think tennis should not be an Olympic sport, but I changed my mind after seeing how Olympic status has helped tennis receive more systematic support from various nation-states. I similarly thought the addition of mixed doubles as a medal sport was an awful idea, but given the rarity of men and women competing both along side one another and against one another during the Olympics I have softened my stance. I am going to take a quick walk down memory lane and review both the strong and weak years for Olympic Tennis.
1988: Steffi Graf Conquers the World
1988 was a strong year for Olympic Tennis precisely because it was the first contemporary games to to have tennis as a medal sport. Steffi Graf had already won a calendar year Grand Slam in 1988. She entered the event with a great deal of momentum and pressure. Graf beat Gabriela Sabatini 6-3, 6-3 to achieve a Golden Slam in 1988. Zina Garrison and Manuela Maleeva picked up bronze medals as tennis at this time did not have a consolation match between the losing semifinalists to determine a sole bronze medal winner. Graf also collected a bronze medal in doubles. Graf’s 1988 included winning all 4 Grand Slam singles titles, a gold medal in singles, a Wimbedon doubles crown and a bronze medal in doubles.
On the men’s side, Miloslav Mecir was a surprise gold medalist, but Mecir had reached the 1986 US Open final, won the 1987 Key Biscayne event, and would reach the 1989 Australian Open final. Mecir could clearly play on the hard court surface at these games. Mecir also reached the 1987 French Open semifinal round and 1988 Wimbledon semifinal round. He was incredibly talented but was also sadly often injured. Tim Mayotte captured the silver medal while Brad Gilbert and Stefan Edberg each collected a bronze medal. Stefan Edberg also won a bronze medal in doubles.
Final Verdict – A Strong Games for Tennis
These games were a big success. I think falling after the US Open, as the Sydney Olympics also did, helped the tennis event. The excitement about tennis’ return as a medal sport all but insured that these games were a success for tennis. Graf’s pursuit of a singular level of excellence during a tennis season also added to the overall heft of these games. From my point of view, the general success and momentum from 1988 built up expectations for 1992 that were not realized.
Why Rafael Nadal Might be the GOAT – Rafa’s claim to the GOAT title revolves around three areas of excellence. I’ll begin with clay. First, no one has dominated any surface in the manner that Nadal has dominated clay. Rafa is Borg’s equal in French Open titles, but his ownership of Monte Carlo, the Italian Open and Barcelona along with titles at the Hamburg/Madrid clay court Masters 1000 events is unreal. Rafa being so far out in front of everyone on that surface gives him a cushion to work with on other surfaces when he is compared to other players.
However, Rafa does not really need that cushion as his second attribute will attest. Rafa owns big titles on hard courts and grass courts and won his career Grand Slam much earlier in his career than Andre Agassi or Roger Federer did. Nadal won the 2008 Olympic Gold medal on a hard court. He won the 2009 Australian Open and 2010 US Open titles. Throw in multiple titles at Indian Wells and at the Canadian Open along with his runner-up finishes in New York and Melbourne, and no one can say Rafa is not a great hard court champion. On grass, Rafa’s case is even stronger. Rafa owns two Wimbledon titles as well as a title at the Queen’s Club. Rafa is a three time Wimbledon runner-up. Nadal has reached more Wimbledon championship matches than Stefan Edberg did! Rafa knows grass.
Finally, Rafael Nadal holds an 18-10 head-to-head edge over Roger Federer. A lot has been made of this fact. I think their age gap along with the surface gap has some implications here, but the numbers are there. Rafa has beaten Roger in many big matches. This means something.
Why Rafael Nadal is not the GOAT - The French Open specifically and clay court tennis in general did not gain equal footing with events on faster surfaces until the mid 1980′s. Rafael Nadal has never won a season ending title and has only reached the season ending event’s final round one time. Rafael Nadal still trails Bjorn Borg’s 11 majors, Pete Sampras’ 14 majors and Roger Federer’s 16 majors.
You Decide - Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are still moving targets as they keep adding to their career accomplishments. Consider that Federer and Nadal have combined to win seven titles in 2012 alone (and it is only May!). Rafa being younger than Roger makes it even harder to know where his career will lead. I can say with a lot of confidence that Rafa should equal and pass Bjorn Borg’s major totals. The Spaniard’s hard court wins already have Nadal ahead of Borg in my all-time lists. Will Rafa get to fourteen or sixteen majors? That is harder to predict. If his health holds up and he solves the Djokovic riddle, Nadal has a very good chance of laying claim to the title of GOAT. If Rafa’s knees go and/or he cannot beat Nole on surfaces other than clay, in my mind he’ll likely end up somewhere among the top three post-Laver players.
Tennis, being an individual sport, tends to quickly cycle through generations. Time is an opponent that a few can fend off, but is an opponent that no one defeats. Fernando Gonzalez and Ivan Ljubicic are both hanging up their racquets this spring. Both players brought an interesting dimension to the tour, and both will be missed.
Gonzo About the Olympics
Fernando Gonzalez is a player that I always enjoyed watching. His style of play has been to hit hard and if that does not work hit harder. Under Larry Stefanki he did add a few wrinkles to his game, but Gonzo has always played a visceral style of tennis. The closest player to his style going forward is Nicolas Almagro, but Almagro lacks some of Gonzo’s obvious aggressiveness. Gonzo reached the 2007 Australian Open final and nearly reached the 2009 French Open final. His greatest success was in the Olympic Games. In 2004, Fernando won the Olympic Gold Medal in doubles with his partner Nicolas Massu (who won Gold in singles). Gonzalez also claimed the 2004 Bronze Medal in singles. In 2008 with some controversy surrounding his semifinal against James Blake, Fernando Gonzalez reached the Gold Medal match losing to Rafael Nadal and taking home a Silver Medal in singles. These three Olympic medals represent Gonzalez’s best achievements.
Ljubicic a Tennis Genius?
Ivan Ljubicic reached the top 4 in the world rankings and helped win a Davis Cup title for Croatia in 2005. Ljubicic was always a big guy who could crank his serve. He troubled Andy Roddick for awhile during Roddick’s magical 2003 US Open run. However, Ljubicic raised his game by becoming incredibly fit and being very smart. Tennis genius is normally reserved for artists such as John McEnroe or Roger Federer. However, Ljubicic has always been a player who struggled with low bouncing shots and who was mechanical in his court coverage. Still, Ivan built his game around being incredibly fit, winning points on his serve, hitting his rock solid one-handed backhand and basically maximizing the gifts he does possess. Ljubicic is a tennis genius in the sense that Brad Gilbert is a tennis genius. To put it simply, Ljubicic pushed most matches toward focusing on his strengths and while shoring up any weaknesses he could on the practice court and in the gym. Ljubicic turned his career into a bright display of toughness and results. Beating Andre Agassi, Andy Roddick and the Bryan Twins in doubles to defeat the US on US soil during his 2005 Davis Cup run as well as defeating Rafael Nadal and Andy Roddick in succession to win the 2010 Indian Wells title demonstrate that Ljubicic’s career had a lot of high water marks. Ljubicic’s almost philosophical demeanor will be hard to replace.
Post Script – Gonzalez and Ljubicic might give Carlos Moya some challenges on the Champions Tour
It is hard to say if Jim Courier will ever win a Davis Cup title as a captain. I also don’t think Davis Cup is nearly as important as it could be if reconfigured. Still, Courier coaching the US to an unlikely 5-0 victory at Switzerland including Roger Federer losing in singles and doubles marks Courier taking full command of the US Davis Cup Team. With a decent crop of young talent and with Spain not yet placing players younger than Rafael Nadal into the top tier of tennis, Courier and the U.S. could have a nice run in the next 5-7 years.
Roger Federer losing to John Isner in singles as well as losing the deciding doubles point for Switzerland will go into the files as one of his worst weekends. Going forward it will be interesting to see if Federer is suffering from tour fatigue or if this was an aberration. With Andy Murray looking to make a charge and with Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal clearly out in front of Roger at the moment, motivation and concentration will be key to his 2012. I think Federer will be fine and he has been beyond consistent in his career. Even Roger is entitled to a bad weekend now and again.
I opened my trusty copy ofIndependence in Latin America: A Comparative Approach by Richard Graham and re-learned a fact about Argentina. Argentina fought two wars of independence against Spain. These wars revolved around Argentina’s relationship to the deposed and later restored King Ferdinand VII of Spain. Interesting reading. For Juan Martin del Potro, David Nalbandian and company to win against Spain on the road, they will need to depose King Rafa I.
Siglo de Oro of the Spanish Armada?
In all fairness, Spain’s rise in men’s tennis began in the 1990′s, but no country in the first two decades of this new century has placed as many players inside of the top 20 as Spain has. Spain is also dominating Davis Cup as of late. It is early, but Spain is the tennis nation of the new century to this point. Argentina has also placed a lot of players into the top 20 as of late. David Nalbandian was runner-up at the 2002 Wimbledon Championships, Gaston Gaudio won the 2004 French Open, Guillermo Coria was the rightful successor to the King of Clay title held by Juan Carlos Ferrero prior to Rafal Nadal’s rise. Also, Juan Martin del Potro won the 2009 US Open (a year that featured a 3-0 head-to-head record with King Rafa).
Argentina – Look to France 1991
If any country can challenge Spain in Spain, it might be Argentina. Neither nation has a great doubles team. Winning the doubles point is a must for Argentina, but not for Spain. Nalbandian can return serve and change the direction of the ball during a rally in a manner that frustrates even Rafa when Nalbandian is on his game. Nalbandian will need to channel his inner Henri Leconte who was considered over the hill and out of shape by 1991. Leconte drubbed a young Pete Sampras on an indoor court to win a point for France. Leconte also teamed with Guy Forget to win the doubles point for France. When Forget beat Sampras on the final day, France won the Davis Cup 3-1 versus a US team featuring Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras. Nalbandian might pull a rabbit out of his hat, and hep Argentina win the Davis Cup.
Home Turf is the Difference
The two biggest differences between Argentina in 2011 and France in 1991 is that France had players in Forget and Leconte who could play doubles naturally and France had a rabid home crowd. Beating a not yet dominant Pete Sampras twice on a fast indoor court might not have seemed likely, but thousands of wild fans made it plausible. Beating Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer 3 times in singles on clay is not going to happen. Argentina is focused and will need the doubles point while dominating Ferrer, but I think Spain wins either 3-1 or 3-2. The Siglo de Oro continues for Spain. Either way Vamanos!