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Home   News   Tebbutt: In the Games

Tebbutt: In the Games

Aug 16, 2016
written by: Tom Tebbutt

Since tennis became an Olympic sport again in 1988, there has always been a debate about whether it belonged in the Games and was worthy of comparison to established competitions such as the Grand Slam tournaments, Davis Cup and Fed Cup.

This year’s Olympic tennis has solidified its position in the Games as none had done in the past.

In the abstract, tennis at the Olympics may not equal the Grand Slams because of its abbreviated format and the absence of some of the best players. But once the athletes get on site in the presence of their peers in other sports, it automatically elevates the importance and intensity of the competition.

The way that everyone from gold medalists Andy Murray and Monica Puig to Juan Martin del Potro, Angelique Kerber, Rafael Nadal, Petra Kvitova, Daniel Nestor and Madison Keys competed with every ounce of their being was proof beyond a doubt of tennis’ rightful place in the Olympics.

With no money and no ranking points on offer, it was the sport in the purest form it’s seen on the tours – with little question that an Olympic medal is something to be prized as highly as a Grand Slam championship. Once in the Olympic environment, tennis players become like all Olympic athletes – striving for their best performances with the ultimate aim of a gold medal.

There are really only two drawbacks to tennis in the Olympics – the crowded summer schedule that the event has to be fitted into and the fact that tennis can get lost because of the wide variety of other sports going on at the same time.

Looking ahead to Tokyo 2020, there are a few things that might be improved. The tennis event – with 64 draws in singles, 32 draws in doubles and a 16 draw in mixed doubles – is simply too much tennis crammed into too few (9) days.

That has always been a problem but when one day at these Rio Games was virtually a complete washout because of rain, the problem became even more acute.

Soccer starts three days before the actual opening ceremonies at the Games, so why couldn’t tennis begin a day or two earlier? It could be a problem with regular tour events before and after the Olympics but it’s necessary for the integrity of the competition. It was obvious this year that Juan Martin del Potro (in the gold medal match) and Rafael Nadal (in the bronze medal match) were seriously (irreparably?) disadvantaged because of having played a monster three-hour plus match in the semifinals the previous day. It was no surprise that both, playing on fumes, were beaten.

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A major topic on social media during the Olympics was the best-of-five sets men’s final following a lead-up where all the matches were best-of-three. It makes no sense in the jam-packed schedule as it exists at the moment to play best-of-five for the gold. But it would make sense if the Olympic tennis in the future could be adjusted to allow for a day off from singles for the men. A gold medal is a big deal and a best-of-five final is the truest test and fairest format for determining the player most worthy of the gold medal.

In 2020 the Olympics will be held in Tokyo from July 24 to August 9. That means the Games begin 12 days after the Wimbledon men’s final – unless Wimbledon moves back a week in the calendar or the tennis event is held the second week of the Olympics, not the first week as it was this year.

The summer stretch between Wimbledon and the US Open goes in three-year cycles of there being seven weeks and then six weeks between the two Grand Slams. Fortunately, as it was this year, it will be a seven-week gap between Wimbledon and the US Open in 2020. Still, it will not be easy to fit in a break after Wimbledon, a week leading up to the Olympics for travel to Japan, nine days or more of competition, travel time after the Olympics, the two ATP Masters 1000s and WTA Premier 5 events in Canada and Cincinnati and a basically off-week before Flushing Meadows begins.

The limited weeks in the summer will make it a head-scratcher for tennis officials trying to work out a schedule accommodating the best interests of the players and the tournaments.

But the Rio Games have certainly shown that tennis and the players, who played their hearts out, belong in the Olympics.

They have also proved that tennis will survive the eventual passing from the scene of current greats Serena Williams and Roger Federer. Williams was eliminated in the third round of singles and the first round of doubles and Federer was not there at all. But tennis at the 2016 Olympics still thrived and turned out to be just about as thrilling as it’s possible to imagine.

Home cooking

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The main reason for holding Challenger and Futures events around the world is to get exposure for tennis – and to offer an opportunity for host country players to compete and earn valuable ranking points at home.

That didn’t quite work at the National Bank Challenger in Granby, Que., two weeks ago when Aleksandra Wozniak was the only Canadian to reach the semifinals but it was a different story at the National Bank Challenger in Gatineau, Que., last week.

On Sunday two Canadians, Bianca Andreescu of Toronto and Peter Polansky of Thornhill, Ont., won the women’s and men’s titles. Andreescu, 16 and rounding into form after a stress fracture in her foot kept her out of action for most of 2016, defeated American Ellie Halbauer 6-2, 7-5 in the final while Polansky won 3-6, 6-4, ret. when Vincent Millot of France stopped because he was emotionally unable to continue after learning of a death in the family the previous evening.

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Andreescu’s success should help her climb from a WTA ranking of No. 626 to about No. 435 while Polansky’s win has moved his ATP ranking from No. 209 to No. 164.

Denis Shapovalov, who upset Frank Dancevic in the quarter-finals, looked a little jaded after three momentous weeks beginning at Rogers Cup in Toronto on July 25 and was beaten by Millot in the semifinals. The 17-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., has seen his ATP ranking rise to No. 250 from No. 271 as a result of reaching the Gatineau semifinals.

The top Canadian men and women currently are:

6. Milos Raonic                  40. Genie Bouchard

109. Vasek Pospisil            228. Francoise Abanda

164. Peter Polansky            372. Carol Zhao

168. Steven Diez                383. Aleksandra Wozniak

229. Frank Dancevic          386. Sharon Fichman

250. Denis Shapovalov       435. Heidi El Tabakh

Meanwhile back in Cincinnati

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Cincinnati doesn’t offer the exotic allure of Rio de Janeiro but the world’s top tennis players will just have to adjust because that’s where they’re doing business this week at the Western & Southern Open – a Masters 1000 for the men and Premier 5 for the women.

Milos Raonic, after skipping the Olympics, gets back into action on Wednesday with an opening match against the winner of Tuesday’s first round between John Isner and Fabio Fognini. If it’s Isner it could be a tough challenge for him because the 6-foot-10 American leads their head-to-head 3-0, having beaten Raonic in Miami in 2015, in Cincinnati in 2013 and in Toronto (Rogers Cup) in 2012. The score of the most recent round-of-16 match in Miami last year was 6-7(3), 7-6(6), 7-6(5) and five of the seven sets they have played against each other have ended in tiebreaks.

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Genie Bouchard, who had to qualify in Cincinnati, will play Barbora Strycova in the first round. Strycova won a bronze medal in the women’s doubles in Rio on Saturday playing with compatriot Lucie Safarova. The Czechs had a huge upset of Serena and Venus Williams in the opening round, and beat Bouchard and Gabriela Dabrowski in the second round.

Bouchard leads the head-to-head 3-2 with the No. 20-ranked Strycova but lost their last match in Rome by an embarrassing 6-1, 6-0 score in May. But that match was played the day after Bouchard scored a 6-1, 5-7, 7-5 upset of No. 2-ranked Angelique Kerber in the second round.    

The only other Canadian in the singles draws in Cincinnati is Vasek Pospisil. He will play No. 44-ranked Marcos Baghdatis in the first round on Tuesday. The 31-year-old Cypriot leads their head-to-head 2-1 and won their most recent encounter 6-4, 6-2 in Dubai in February.

Daniel Nestor and Pospisil (sixth seeds) are entered in the men’s doubles and Gabriela Dabrowski is in the women’s doubles with regular partner Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez of Spain.  

A heartfelt farewell

Andrea Petkovic didn’t win a medal of any kind at the Olympics but still offered this message of gratitude for her experience at the 2016 Rio Games.