Tennis in 1996 suffered despite being a logical tune-up for the US Open as the tennis events were held on hard courts in Atlanta, Georgia. Still, 7 of the top 10 men did not play the event. Andre Agassi was the #1 seed, but he was fresh off of a Wimbledon loss to Doug Flach (spellcheck keeps wanting to change his name to Doug Flash and losing to The Flash would be less humbling). Unseeded Jonas Bjorkman drew Agassi in the first round. Bjorkman had a break out singles season in 1997 and lost a tight match to Agassi 7-6, 7-6. Had that result reversed these games might have fallen to pieces as the tennis facility was not close to the main Olympic facilities in Atlanta. As tennis crazy as Atlanta is, a loss by Agassi may have killed fan attendance. Still, the draw was soft on the men’s side of things. Steffi Graf chose not to play the event, but the women’s draw was solid. The Atlanta games would be the first of the modern era to have a bronze medal match of the losing semifinalists rather than awarding 2 bronze medals.
Lindsay Davenport Takes Gold
Davenport did not start winning major events until the 1998 US Open, but the 1996 Olympics foreshadowed a stellar career for Lindsay. She worked her way through a tough draw and beat Jana Novotna and Aranxta Sanchez-Vicario in the medal rounds. Jana Novotna took the bronze medal match by beating Mary Joe Fernandez. Sanchez-Vicario added to her medal haul from 1992 with a silver medal in singles and a bronze medal in doubles with Conchita Martinez. Jana Novotna picked up a silver medal in doubles with Helena Sukova. Mary Joe Fernandez lost in the bronze medal match in singles, but defended her 1992 gold medal in doubles with Gigi Fernandez. Monica Seles was the top seed, but she lost a tight 3 set match to Novotna in the quarterfinal round. Women’s tennis saw a trend of players compiling multiple medals in the 3 modern instances of tennis as an Olympic sport.
Where Were the Top Men?
A weak draw led to the men’s event looking anemic. Andre Agassi won gold and this alone helped to prop up the event. However, Agassi’s form in 1996 was a far cry from what he demonstrated in the late stages of 1994 and most of 1995. Second seeded Goran Ivanisevic lost in the first round. The man who upset Jim Courier at Wimbledon 1992, Andrei Olhovskiy, resurfaced more than four year later to reach the quarterfinal round. Agassi beat Leander Paes and Sergi Bruguera in the medal rounds to take the gold. Bruguera won the French Open in 1993 and 1994. Having him contest the gold medal with Andre Agassi, who at that time had won 3 major titles, gave the gold medal match more legitimacy than the draw might have suggested.
The men’s event in Atlanta has to be remembered as much for other medals awarded on the men’s side as it is for Agassi beating Bruguera. Leander Paes was an entertaining revelation. For him to claim a bronze medal and help popularize tennis coming from a country with 1 billion people was and is a big deal. Tim Henman won a silver medial for the UK in doubles. Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge took home gold in doubles.
Final Verdict – Things Somehow Worked Out
With no disrespect to Marc Rosset, Olympic medals tend to be won by people at the top of a given sport. Tennis being a single elimination format is not going to hold form every time, but Agassi winning gold sounded right to casual tennis fans. The top men’s doubles team winning gold made sense. The women’s events maintained a sense of order while producing a future star in Lindsay Davenport. Leander Paes’ hands amazed fans and opponents alike. Atlanta restored some momentum to Olympic tennis that was lost in 1992.