In my review of Olympic tennis events, one trend emerged from 1988-2004: The Women’s Event Was Better than the Men’s. In 2000, a streaking Venus Williams went 3 tight sets in a semifinal tilt with the veteran Monica Seles. In 1988, Steffi Graf beat Gabriela Sabatini . The 1992, 1996 and 2004 games all delivered elite champions on the women’s side. Whereas, male champions ranged from players who held the #1 ranking in Andre Agassi and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, to a top 5 player in Miloslav Mecir, to Marc Rosset and Nicolas Massu achieving career high water marks.
The Russian Are Coming
If 2004 was the year of the Russian breakthrough in women’s tennis, the 2008 Olympics were a defining achievement of that Russian wave. Elena Dementieva won Gold by beating Dinara Safina. Vera Zvonareva won the Bronze medal. Russia had a clean sweep of the 3 women’s singles medals. On the way to the medal rounds, Dementieva beat a young Caroline Wozniacki and Serena Williams. Na Li beat Venus Williams and reached the medal round only to lose to both Safina and Zvonoreva. Still, it was good for a Chinese player to advance so far at the Bejing games. Na Li’s 2011 French Open title and Australian Open runner-up finish were foreshadowed by her solid play at the 2008 games.
Women’s doubles provided a lot of spark as well. Serena and Venus Williams added a second Gold medal in doubles to their first medal haul in 2000. Yan Zi and Zheng Jie delighted the home crowd with a Bronze medal. I think the rise of tennis in China is a story that is just beginning to unfold, but it is a story of vast importance.
Nadal’s Edad de Oro
Men’s tennis was riding a huge wave of momentum in 2008. Rafael Nadal had ushered in a changing of the guard with his scintillating 6-4, 6-4, 6-7, 6-7, 9-7 victory over Roger Federer in the Wimbledon championship match. Novak Djokovic won the 2008 Australian Open, Indian Wells, and Italian Open titles. A lot of questions were surrounding the fate of Roger Federer after such a painful and potentially paradigm shifting loss. The 2008 games were set for some epic tennis.
Rafael Nadal, on the cusp of his first turn holding the number one ranking, reached the medal rounds by dismissing 4 opponents while only losing a single set. Still, Novak Djokovic who had recently bested Rafa on a similar hard court in Cincinnati awaited in the semifinal round. Roger Federer appeared to regain some footing with 3 solid victories only to drop a match to James Blake for the first time in his career. James Blake advanced to the medal rounds to face 2004 Olympic hero Fernando Gonzalez. Gonzo and Blake played a 3 set match that involved some controversy as to whether a ball touched Gonzo’s racquet on a Blake passing shot that was called out. The chair umpire did not call the touch, and Gonzo did not call it on himself. Replay showed that the ball did hit Gonzo’s racquet. Gonzo advanced 4-6. 7-5, 11-9 as Blake fumed. Djokovic and Rafa put on an equally intense match that lacked the acrimony of the Blake-Gonzo semifinal. Rafa beat Djokovic 6-4, 1-6, 6-4. Djokovic claimed Bronze beating Blake 6-3, 7-6.* Nadal routined Gonzo 6-3, 7-6, 6-3. Gonzo added a 2008 Silver medal in singles to his 2004 Gold in doubles and Bronze in singles to complete an Olympic set. Nadal set the stage for his career Grand Slam that would be realized at the 2010 US Open. Djokovic’s Bronze medal helped further his eventual status as the most decorated Serbian athlete.
The men’s doubles did not disappoint either. Despite a few upsets, fans got to see a lot of top singles players in the doubles draw. Rafa, Nole, Federer, Andy Murray, and Lleyton Hewitt joined a draw led by the Bryan brothers. Roger Federer and Stanislas Wawrinka moved through the draw to meet Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes in the quarterfinal round. With a straight set win, the Swiss team moved on to face the Bryan Twins. Once again Roger and Stanislas beat a decorated doubles team to advance to the Gold medal match. The Swiss team took a Gold medal that helped propel Roger Federer to his 5th consecutive US Open crown. The Bryan Twins won the Bronze medal.
Final Verdict – Tennis’ Top Players Were All In
Rafa, Nole, Fed, the Williams Sisters, the Bryan Twins … all have marquee value. Each player or doubles team found a way to take a medal home. Chinese players advanced to the medal rounds in both women’s singles and women’s doubles. The Russians swept the women’s singles field. These games had a little something for multiple fan bases. Rafa fans saw the 2008 medal as validation of his #1 status. Nole fans saw hope for the future. Federer fans could see that there was life after Wimbledon 08, and fans of the famous sibling teams of the Williams Sisters and the Bryan Twins could hang their hat on Olympic successes. The 2008 games were the best ever.
PS – 2012 Has Surpassed 2008
I write this on the eve of the Gold medal matches in men’s singles, women’s doubles and mixed doubles. I have no idea how any of those 3 matches will turn out. Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka have added a Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in women’s singles to their career achievements. The Bryan Twins won the 2012 Gold in men’s doubles. The 2012 games have surpassed the 2008 games as the greatest ever for tennis and 3 big matches still have not been decided.
* – I still maintain that Blake’s career took a serious dip after that controversial semifinal loss to Gonzo. Had he won he’d have at worst claimed a Silver medal, instead he went home empty handed.