Work in Sports
Tennis loses Olympic competition
SYDNEY, Australia -- For a dozen years now, I've tried to put my finger on exactly what makes Olympic tennis different from the Sioux Falls Open or any other stop on the pro tour. Bless you, Venus Williams, for finally pointing out the distinction that had so long eluded me.
"It's a change from the [other] tournaments," she said on Thursday after dispatching Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand in the second round, 6-2, 6-3. "Everyone's trading pins."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it. When Olympic tennis was resurrected, as a demonstation sport in 1984 and a medal sport at the 1988 Games, the International Tennis Federation might have concocted a format to match the stage. The ITF might have honored the notion of representing your country, which sits at the heart of the Olympic movement. Team points medals, mixed doubles, even adopting whole the scoring system from good old World Team Tennis -- all sorts of solutions would have accomplished that task, and spared everyone the usual slog through the draw for men and women in singles and doubles. Even Lindsay Davenport of the U.S., winner of the women's singles gold in Atlanta four years ago, wishes Olympic tennis had some team element.
But in Sydney it's the same old, same old. At the Tennis Centre in Olympic Park, scoreboards give no clue as to which country the competitors call home. Few players bother wearing their national colors. And the entire humdrum exercise goes by a felicitously humdrum name: "the Olympic Tennis Event."
Why? The pooh-bahs of the ITF, much like the soccer lords of FIFA, must be petrified that the Olympics will siphon attention away from their marquee events. (In tennis, that would be the Grand Slams; in soccer, the quadrennial World Cup.) Such insecurity serves no one -- not the players who would love team competition in parallel to, if not instead of, individual play; and certainly not the fans who, unless they're old enough to remember World Team Tennis, have no idea what they're missing.
Davenport pulled a Daniel Day-Lewis on Thursday, withdrawing from the Olympics after a chronic problem with her left foot flared up. "People who aren't on the inside don't realize how difficult it's been for Lindsay this year," said U.S. team captain Billie Jean King. "For her to get to the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open was an unbelievable feat." ... Marat Safin, the Russian who turned a trick of thermodynamics by sending Pete Sampras' heat right back at him in the U.S. Open, was sliced up on Wednesday by French junkballer Fabrice Santoro. ... Classy Aussies like Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall have their echo in the chair umpires here, who after matches urge crowds to "please show your appreciation for" the loser, and "please congratulate" the winner, after which a rouse goes up every time.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Alexander Wolff is in Sydney covering the Games for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back daily to read Wolff's behind-the-scenes reports from Down Under.