It looks like 2012 may go down as the year when the tennis at the Olympics hit the tipping point. By the time it was over, very few critics could voice complaints about the level of commitment or interest by the players other than those, perhaps, who diminished their chances to earn a medal on Wimbledon grass by playing clay-court events between Wimbledon and the Games. Nobody among the top contenders went that route, so the cavil is sort of academic.
Personally, I still don't believe that tennis ought to be in the Olympics (neither should other highly commercial pro sports, like basketball, soccer, or — in four years time — golf). But the barn door is open and the horse is out, so the point is moot. I can enjoy it as much as anyone, especially now that tennis has become a full-blooded member of the Olympic family, as attested by the fact that eight of the flag-bearers (it's a high honor) were tennis players, and it would have been nine had Rafael Nadal been able to lead the Spanish contingent into the Olympic stadium in London.
This final validation of tennis (at least in the eyes of tennis people) began in 2008 at Beijing, where Rafael Nadal won gold at the end of a fairly predictable tournament. It was verified this year in London, and perhaps it was no coincidence that the vehicle for this maturation of tennis was the All England Club, which also hosts Wimbledon. The venue certainly gave tennis added credibility and visibility, both within and without the tennis community.
Whatever the case, unless things change drastically there will be no reason to debate the validity or significance of the Olympic tennis event from now on. No, an Olympic gold is not the equivalent of winning a Grand Slam; it's more prestigious, in the broadest sense, but also less significant in the judgement of those who know best, the tennis community. Whatever the case, it sure as hail means a lot more than winning any Masters 1000 or Premium Mandatory event.
So let's award our final accolades and demerits. We're awarding just one individual thumbs up in each gender division. Everyone else is will be an honorable mention.
Andy Murray's gold-medal win was a superb performance, and it lent something enchanting to these Games, not least because of the painfully and elaborately chronicled troubles British men — including, to this point, Murray — have had winning Wimbledon.
Nobody is going the confuse winning the nine-day, six-round, best-of-three-set Olympic event (until the best-of-five-set final) with a triumph at a two-week, seven-round, best-of-five (from the start) Grand Slam event. In fact, some pundits are sure to point out that Murray was extra-lucky at Wimbledon because he's already shown that he's at his best in high-quality events played on a compressed schedule comprised of best-of-three matches. Murray has won many more Masters 1000 titles than anyone outside the Big Three. The next man in the rankings, No. 5 David Ferrer, has yet to win his first Masters event.
But I wouldn't confuse these Olympics with a Masters event for all sorts of reasons, including the singles-doubles workload carried by most players, the fact that third sets were played out (no tiebreakers), and that the final was a five setter. Say what you want, going out to face Roger Federer of Switzerland in a five-set final on grass at Wimbledon just doesn't compare to butting heads with him on cement over three tie breaker sets in Montreal.
Add the inherent pressure of playing for your nation, which doesn't diminish even if the Olympics as an entity overshadows any individual event, and particularly one that isn't exactly a classic Olympics sport (like, track-and-field or swimming), and you have to be impressed by what Murray, part of "Team GB" accomplished in his little half-acre.
Williams of the USA gets the high honors in the women's division, and you can take your pick, Venus or Serena. I'm not going to choose, because they are truly a unit in some vital and transcendent way, and never more so than at the Olympics. They brought great distinction upon themselves and represented the USA in exemplary fashion in London. The unprecedented third double gold medal they scooped up as a team is just the beginning of it.
Venus Williams had high but fragile hopes coming into the singles event, but she had an excellent tournament when you factor in her age (32) and the long battle she's fought with injuries as well as that insidious auto-immune condition, Sjögren's Syndrome. One symptom of Sjögren's is rapid fatigue — not exactly an easy work-around for a top pro athlete. Venus knocked off No. 9 seed and recent French Open finalist Sara Errani of Italy, and then took out Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada. She gave each woman all of four games.
Venus's progress was halted in the third round by one of the most dangerous women on the tour these days, No. 7 seed Angelique Kerber of Germany. It took Kerber, who lost in the quarterfinals to top-seeded Belarusian Victoria Azarenka, two tiebreakers to topple Venus. But then Venus partnered Serena to take the doubles.
As for Serena, what can anyone say anymore? If she's not the greatest woman player of all time, she's certainly the most dangerous ever. Citing this as the best tournament of her career, she lost a mere 17 games and her serving stats were off the charts good. She beat Maria Sharapova so severely in the final that I was a little surprised the loser didn't claim to be an American (she does a fine impersonation) just to spare her compatriots the embarrassment.
The bad news for the women in all this is that the progress they appeared to make with the hot streak of Azarenka, the promise (largely unfulfilled thus far this year) of Petra Kvitova, and even the career Grand Slam completed in Paris by Sharapova is that if and when Serena chooses to play, they all would better off heading for the tall and uncut. Serena can make a laugher of a match with any of them.
Despite winning the French Open, Rafael Nadal will be seeded merely No. 5 at Wimbledon, opening the prospect of a quarterfinal with Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray.
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