The 1988 Olympic Games brought tennis back as a medal sport. Steffi Graf completed a “Golden Slam” in 1988, and the overall success of the tennis events brought about a great deal of excitement for the 1992 games. These games were held in Barcelona, Spain so Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario looked to be a major factor. The 1992 Olympics were held between Wimbledon and the US Open so players were looking at transitioning from clay to grass to clay to hard courts from June – early September. Surface speeds were not as uniform then as they are today so this was not an easy proposition.
The Women’s Event: Great Results
Steffi Graf had been runner-up at the 1992 French Open and had won the 1992 Wimbledon championships in a decisive fashion over Monica Seles. Graf was an Olympic veteran who won gold in singles and bronze in doubles in 1988 and who won the singles demonstration event at the 1984 games. Seles could not play due to citizenship issues. Sanchez-Vicario won the French Open in 1989 upsetting Graf in the final. She also beat Graf in the 1991 French Open semifinal round and lost a tight 3 set affair at the 1992 French Open to Graf. On clay and in Arantxa’s backyard, it looked to be an event with two clear favorites.
The tournament did not work out quite as planned, but there was drama to end the event. Jennifer Capriati beat Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 in the semifinal round to set up a gold medal match with Steffi Graf. Capriati pulled yet another upset with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 win over Graf who would add a silver to the gold and bronze medals she won in 1988. Mary Joe Fernandez and Sanchez-Vicario each received bronze medals. The Spanish fans had to be happy that Arantxa won a second medal in doubles by claiming silver with Conchita Martinez while Mary Joe Fernandez and Gigi Fernandez claimed the gold medal in doubles.
The Men’s Event: Marc Rosset? Jordi Arrese?
Jim Courier won the 1991 and 1992 French Open titles and looked forward to the 1992 Olympic games being played on clay. Courier and Pete Sampras won the Italian Open as a doubles tandem early in their careers and the US fielded a team of the #1 and #3 singles players in the world for the doubles event. Jim Courier bragged that he would stay in the Olympic Village. The US men’s team that boasted Courier, Sampras and 1989 French Open champion Michael Chang was even compared to the 1992 USA Basketball Dream Team(!). World #2 Stefan Edberg was in the singles and doubles events as well. Germany fielded Boris Becker and Michael Stich for singles and doubles. This was billed by many as the tennis event of the year. Someone needed to clue the top seeds in to this idea.
Boris Becker, who expressed similar sentiments to those of Jim Courier prior to the 1988 games, ominously said in 1992 something along the lines that he was just looking forward to getting coffee with non-tennis athletes. Courier decided he did not like the Olympic dorms after all (see below for more). Stich complained that the courts were rigged to favor Spanish players. Courier was beaten by Marc Rosset in the round of 16. Edberg, Sampras, Stich, Chang and Becker all also lost prior to the medal rounds. Goran Ivanisevic did win bronze medals in singles and doubles with Goran Prpic. Boris Becker took a short enough coffee break to win the gold in doubles with Michael Stich. Still, Marc Rosset vs. Jordi Arrese for the gold medal did not exactly project that the best of the best was standing on the medal stand to end the event.
Final Verdict – Men’s Olympic Tennis Took a Step Back
The 1992 games having all matches be 3 out of 5 set affairs on slow clay coming on the heels of Wimbledon and interfering with preparation for the US Open set up an incredibly weak men’s field for the 1996 games. Jim Courier mentioned that he was fatigued following his four set 1992 US Open quarterfinal victory over Andre Agassi. He explained that the fatigue was a result of not properly being prepared for the US Open because of the Olympic games. Women’s tennis continued to place elite players on the medal stands, but by 1996 the prevailing belief on the ATP tour was that the Olympic games hindered Grand Slam prospects.
Post Script – Pete Sampras Remembers the 1992 Olympics
What are your own Olympic memories from the Barcelona Games in 1992? “My memory of 1992, I walked into the Olympic village, I had a cot, and it was 95 degrees. I saw Jim Courier, who was literally two feet away from me in another cot and I said, ‘You know, I might go to the hotel’. So that started off things. It is obviously a very big event, a lot of people, I enjoyed my time there. I didn’t have a chance to see any other events. I lost in one of the early rounds in a tough match. It was a good experience. Tennis, to me, in the Olympics, in my time growing up, it was an exhibition