Sunday was an extraordinary day in Olympic tennis history and in the history of the sport itself.
There were three matches that were absolutely riveting and only one of them was in singles.
To start with there was the first-ever loss at the Olympics for Serena and Venus Williams as they were beaten 6-3, 6-4 in an intense doubles contest by Czechs Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova. Venus was under the weather and Serena may have been over-compensating, but Safarova’s firepower and Strycova’s spunk made them perfect foils for the three-time Olympic doubles gold medalists who are two of the greatest women’s players of all-time.
Then there was Thomaz Bellucci and Andre Sa, two host-country Brazilians playing against the most famous brothers currently in the game – Andy and Jamie Murray of Great Britain. It was like two immovable objects as the Brazilians dug in riding the crowd’s enthusiasm and the Murrays tried their familial very best to defend their honour. It actually came down to a ball tipping off the net on the final point (13 overall match points or set points) and handcuffing Andy Murray as he tried to volley – Bellucci and Sa winning in a sensational second-set tiebreak full of drama and spectacular shot-making by a score of 7-6(6), 7-6(14).
Finally, there was Juan Martin del Potro red-lining his tennis to upset world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in a 7-6(4), 7-6(2) stunner. The 27-year-old Argentine has been through three surgeries on his left (two-handed) wrist and it’s still not feeling 100 per cent right, but he brutalized the forehand with such force that he was able to overpower an opponent who is probably the best defensive player in the sport. When two great champions end up leaving the court in tears it’s pretty obvious that something special has transpired, and that the event itself is out of the ordinary.
The “O” in emotion mentioned at the top here is from the “O” in Olympics and there’s no doubt that the event’s international scope and individual national focuses make it like no other. And in the preceding resume of Sunday’s remarkable happenings there wasn’t even a mention of Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil saving two match points in winning their opening round of doubles 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(6) over little-known New Zealanders Marcus Daniell and Michael Venus.
From now until the tennis ends on Sunday there will be a lot of amazing things happening and many of them will likely take place in doubles and mixed doubles. The latter event is usually a throw-away amusement at Grand Slam tournaments, but with a gold medal at the end of the line it changes everything and, while there will be some lighter moments on court among the players, there’s an entirely different motivation when the prize is the ultimate accolade in sport.
So doubles, both regular and mixed, will be fun to watch in a way that they not always are, except maybe for Davis Cup and Fed Cup.
As much as there has been criticism of the commercialization of the Olympics and the taint of doping, the Games remains the pinnacle of sport and that should provide lots of compelling moments in the remaining singles, doubles and mixed doubles matches at the Rio 2016 Games.
It seems Rio is re-invigorating and reinforcing the place of tennis in the Olympics. In 2012, the event had worthy champions in Murray and Serena Williams, but the competition was played at the All England Club where Wimbledon had concluded just three weeks earlier. There was something jaded about the whole affair and the players were isolated because Wimbledon was miles from the hub of the London Games. Now the tennis complex is in among all the other competition sites so tennis athletes can feel a greater communion with their peers in other sports as well as with the Games themselves.
That heightens the Olympic spirit and makes tennis seem like a more integral part of the Games.
Granby ❤️ tennis
The Challenger Banque Nationale in Granby, Que., is one of the gems of the tennis year in Canada.
Offering $100,000 (men) and $50,000 (women) in prize money, the event gets tremendous support from the local community and is one of the best-presented of all the Challengers held worldwide.
This particular Challenger event was first held in 1993 in Montebello, Que., located on the Ottawa River between the nation’s capital and Montreal.
In 1995 it moved to Granby and has been held there every year ever since except for 1996 when the Atlanta Olympic Games altered the schedule.
In 2011 a women’s event was added and the second winner was Genie Bouchard in 2012.
The main attraction at this year’s men’s event was reigning Wimbledon junior boys champion Denis Shapovalov. The 17-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., won two rounds but was beaten 6-4, 6-3 in the quarter-finals on an off night by an in-form Sekou Bangoura of the U.S.
The eventual winner, his first Challenger title, was Frances Tiafoe. In the $75,000 Challenger Banque Nationale this week in Gatineau, Que., Shapovalov was to face Tiafoe in a highly-anticipated first-round match-up. But the 18-year-old American has withdrawn and Shapovalov will now play lucky loser Samuel Monette of Canada not before 16:00 on Tuesday. That match will be followed not before 18:00 by Peter Polansky v. Félix Auger-Aliassime.
The home favourite on the women’s side in Granby was Aleksandra Wozniak (pictured above with indestructible Montreal Gazette reporter Pat Hickey). She was defeated 7-5, 6-1 in the semifinals by eventual winner 21-year-old American Jennifer Brady.
Francoise Abanda made it to the quarter-finals where she had what the French call a “contre performance” and was beaten 6-0, 6-1 by veteran Olga Govortsova of Belarus, the eventual runner-up.
It was disappointing for tournament director Eugene Lapierre (a Granby native and also Rogers Cup tournament director) that no Canadians made it to the men’s or women’s finals but crowds were large and enthusiastic all week and the event got good media coverage both locally and from Montreal outlets.
Happy birthday Roger
It might take a while to blow out 35 candles on a cake but Roger Federer probably had lots of help from his four children on Monday when he celebrated his 35th birthday.
For many years he had his birthday in Canada during Rogers Cup but it wouldn’t have happened this year, even if he had played, because of the date change caused by the Olympics.
The sublime Swiss turned 35 as the No. 3-ranked player in the world but that ranking will drop precipitously when he doesn’t defend the 1,000 points he got last year by winning next week’s event in Cincinnati, the 1,200 he earned as runner-up at the 2015 US Open and the 1,000 he made as finalist at the 2015 ATP World Tour Finals in London.
Currently No. 10 in the 2016 Race, he will likely be overtaken soon by No. 11 David Goffin who is just 45 points behind.
Also having a birthday on Monday was Félix Auger-Aliassime of Montreal who turned 16. Grouped with Denis Shapovalov as the best prospect among Canada’s junior players, Auger-Aliassime enjoys playing the piano to relax after the tension of tennis, with classical music being his favourite.
Joining Federer and Auger-Aliassime among tennis players celebrating an August 8th birthdate was Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine. Mother of daughter Karin born in 2013, the current world No. 62 turned 30 on Monday.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) August 6, 2016
They have faced each other in the final of two of the three Grand Slam events already played in 2016. Here Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber are a happy pair in this Olympic-spirit selfie in Rio.
John McEnroe's first pitch at Mets game tonight is one of the best first pitches ever thrown https://t.co/7g2MUzyt92
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) August 2, 2016
No one ever accused John McEnroe of not having an ego. Well, it may just be a little larger after the 57-year-old New Yorker did such a good job throwing out the first pitch at a recent Mets game.
— Luigi Gatto (@LuisGatTWI) August 6, 2016
Novak Djokovic reduced a young boy to tears by signing an autograph for him and then gave him a hug to try to console him.
Last week during the Challenger Banque Nationale in Granby, Que., a visitor walked through a car dealer’s lot and heard a horn honk. He looked up to see where it came from – the culprit is pictured at the top here.