Novak Djokovic, the world number one from Serbia defied the heat and perhaps even common sense by signing up to play for his country in mixed doubles as well as singles.
Daniil Medvedev warned the chair umpire that he was about to “die” from the debilitating heat. World number one Ash Barty was eliminated from the singles draw before the ink had even dried on the draw. Andy Murray swallowed his pride and flipped the usual script, dropping out of singles to focus on doubles. Paola Badoza, a brilliant debutant, was forced to withdraw during the quarterfinals and leave the court in a wheelchair.
The fates of the tennis players at these Olympics were different, but they all deserve special praise for one reason: Unlike many of their peers, including some very famous ones, they proved themselves. This time it meant a lot.
The Tokyo Games were the “2020 Summer Olympics,” to be held against the calendar and in deference to the pandemic in July 2021. Criticism came in waves. Media reports focused on the health risks and the onerous protocols they entailed. The International Olympic Committee, as usual, lambasted corruption, the crumbling infrastructure left over from the Games, and dishonest elements in the process of selecting the host country, among other things.
The controversial decision to hold the Games in Tokyo raised fears of a health catastrophe and caused athletes to consider whether to return to living in a bubble and alienating themselves from society. “No thanks,” many tennis players said.
Rafael Nadal, the gold medalist in singles and doubles, asked to cancel Wimbledon and the Tokyo Games after “listening to his body” and hearing that he needed to take a break to extend his career.
Serena Williams, winner of four gold medals, announced her decision to skip the Olympics the day before Wimbledon, but declined to give her reasons. She previously said she didn’t want to leave her family because of Covid’s restrictions.
Even before Roger Federer, who had been targeting this Olympics for years, aggravated the condition of his surgically repaired knee again at Wimbledon, he hedged his bet. “I feel ambivalent,” the Swiss star said during the French Open. “I would love to play. I wish things were better in the world so we wouldn’t even have to debate the question, ‘Is this going to happen? Will I play or not?”
The tennis players who chose Tokyo realized how lucky they were to compete in high-octane, professional sports when they rubbed elbows with the Norwegian Volleyball Vikings, the Kuwaiti skeet shooters, among others, Mongolian women’s basketball team, Slovenian kayakers, Egyptian triathletes, Korean archers, Brazilian skateboarders, Jordanian taekwondo specialists, Swiss mountain bikers . . .
There were other obstacles, both psychological and physical. The players had just experienced a long-awaited return to normalcy at Wimbledon, where spectators finally flooded the courts. Many players have just seen enough empty stands to last a lifetime. The weather in Europe and London has been cool and humid in recent months. Tokyo greeted the athletes with debilitating heat and high humidity, and the occasional breeze was like the breath of a dragon. There were no post-season grass-court recreational competitions on the open hard courts for the men and only one small one for the women.
Thus, Nick Kyrgios, Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov and a host of other familiar names decided they would sleep better without dreaming of Olympic glory. Four of the top-ranked American ATP professionals — John Isner, Reilly Opelka, Taylor Fritz and Sebastian Korda — got the edge over their international rivals by staying home to prepare for this year’s last Grand Slam tournament on American hard court.
The most glaring exception among the waivers: Novak Djokovic.
The world number one in pursuit of the ultimate Golden Slam grail defied the heat and perhaps even common sense by signing up to play mixed doubles as well as singles. It was done more for Serbia, hungry for medals, than for Djokovic. It’s a new level.
What Djokovic and his lesser-known peers and rivals experienced in Tokyo, despite the pandemic, was something that made all the volleys fired by reformers and anti-Olympic partisans sound like cannon shots. What other event or mechanism, real or imagined, could showcase on the greatest of stages all those exceptional athletes competing in a variety of world sports that are not, like the NBA or PGA Tour, the subject of universal fascination?
The tennis players who chose Tokyo realized how lucky they were to compete in high-octane, professional sports when they rubbed elbows with, among others, the Norwegian Volleyball Vikings, the Kuwaiti skeet shooters, the Mongolian women’s basketball team (“Maybe , they [the top teams] underestimate us, and then they realize we’re not so bad,” one team member said in an interview), Slovenian kayakers, Egyptian triathletes, Korean archers, Brazilian skateboarders, Jordanian taekwondo specialists, Swiss mountain bikers. … the list goes on.
“Losing sucks, but losing for Team USA is even worse,” Marcos Giron said after a three-set loss to Kei Nishikori. “But overall, I’ll always remember this trip.”
Nicole Melichor, who paired with Allison Riske in doubles for the United States, said after her first-round loss, “We tennis players are lucky to have weekly tournaments. In other sports, you get a chance once every four years. It really shows how much people love their sport and work so hard for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Olympic tennis is always a hot mess, no doubt about it. The format is tight: singles finalists must play six singles matches in just eight days. The best athletes risk compromising their fitness because they often feel obligated to play doubles (medals carry equal weight, both literally and metaphorically). The best-of-three format leads to more failures in the men’s division. This helps explain the diversity of the list of medalists: Nicolas Massu, Monica Puig and Marc Rosse have won gold in singles at recent Olympics, while Pete Sampras, Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova and Djokovic have not.
It was easy to call this Olympics the “Slacker Games.” Some also claim that Americans don’t care about the Olympics. I’m not sure that statement is generally true, and it certainly doesn’t apply to those athletes who are imbued with the Olympic spirit — athletes who put aside career calculations and personal problems to take part in the greatest international sporting spectacle. Nothing else even comes close.
“Losing sucks, and losing for Team USA is even worse,” Marcos Hiron said after a three-set loss to Japanese star Kei Nishikori. “But overall, I’ll always remember this trip.”
“You know, now that I’ve lived through it, I can’t imagine what it’s like to play in the Olympics in front of a full house. And definitely from now on, I’m going to strive to go to the Olympics in Paris and represent the United States.”