I feel like two questions are asked each and every Olympics games when it comes to tennis. The first is, “Does tennis belong in the Olympics”? The second is if winning Gold is even considered a big title. Ultimately, the first question comes down to personal opinion on the matter. With the latter it’s a little bit more confusing.
Olympics mean different things to different people
Let me start with the obvious. When Monica Puig won in Rio in 2016 to become Puerto Rico’s first Gold Medalist it was obvious to see how much the event meant to her and her people–far more than any regular tour event could do. It’s somewhat the same for Nicolas Massu (Dominic Thiem’s current coach), who won both singles and doubles Gold Medals in Athens back in 2004. Just like Puig, when you think of Massu’s playing career the first thing you immediately think of are his Gold Medals. Those Gold Medals highlight both of their whole careers.
But here’s the thing, the Puerto Rican–who’s unfortunately been injured for a majority of this year–has a career high of #27 in the world and never made a Grand Slam quarterfinal. With Nicolas Massu it’s similar. He reached no Slam quarterfinals, and all his other five titles were various low-tier ATP events. Perhaps there’s no wonder both are so remembered for their Gold Medals, especially because of how out of nowhere both wins were.
If we look at the last three men’s tennis singles Olympics events, they’ve been won by Rafael Nadal in 2008 and Andy Murray in 2012 and 2016. When you think of the Spaniard’s career achievements, you don’t think about the Olympic Gold immediately. Instead, you think about his 20 Grand Slams and 13 Roland Garros titles. With Andy Murray even despite two single Gold medals you think about him being World #1, three Grand Slams, and two Wimbledon titles. Perhaps Murray’s first Gold Medal stands out–but only then because he won it on the hallowed grass of Wimbledon in his own country. And even that subsided once he won the actual Wimbledon tournament the following year. You can immediately see the difference in how Gold medals are perceived depending on the other achievements.
What does an Olympic Medal in tennis really mean?
Just off that logic alone, it’s obvious the Olympic medal isn’t considered as impressive a Grand Slam or being World #1. That’s clear enough, despite Rafael Nadal claiming it’s the hardest event to win in tennis. It being held only once every four years makes that clear enough why. Whilst the Olympics is the pinnacle plenty of other sports, tennis is not one of these. Why would it be, when we have four Grand Slams–three of which are older than the modern Olympics!. With that out of the way, the question is if it’s still a “big” title. Perhaps it’s more in the sense of Masters events and the ATP Tour Finals?
Given how much Novak Djokovic wants the Gold medal this year, and his quest for the Calendar Year Golden Slam, you would think that says enough that it is. Even 2009 US Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro holds his Bronze and Silver medals very deeply to his heart, despite having that Grand Slam. Besides events such as the Davis Cup and ATP Cup, there are no other events on tour where you’re directly playing for your country. The Olympics is the only one where a player is “alone,” as those other two are team events.
When you take that into account–and the fact that so many top players over the years have wanted to win the event quite badly–there’s no doubt it’s a “big” event. No, it’s not the pinnacle of tennis and will never be anything close to it. But it’s definitely at least in the next tier or two, alongside the Masters events and arguably just behind (or even ahead of) the ATP Finals. There’s a reason almost every player wants an Olympic Gold and that many players are also remembered for winning one. It’s just some players are so good–eg. Nadal, Federer, Djokovic, Murray, the Williams sisters, etc.–that in their careers a Gold medal wouldn’t be a big deal achievement-wise in contrast to everything else. That shouldn’t take away from the event itself, though. The Olympics is still big. Some players just happen to be even bigger.
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