Not the most archetypal of Olympic sports, tennis continues to maintain its niche in the Games perhaps in part because the event means so much to so many leading stars. For three of them, the 2012 Olympics represents an opportunity to complete the coveted career “golden Slam.” Their pursuit of history may not unfold smoothly, however, since plenty of rivals nurture legitimate aspirations for a golden moment of their own. We review the leading contenders and their challengers.
Federer: During an era when Davis Cup matters less than it once did, the single significant achievement that belongs to Nadal but not his rival is the Olympic gold medal and the career “golden Slam” that accompanies it. Felled unpredictably by Berdych and Blake in 2004 and 2008, the greatest player of all time has looked several notches below his immortal self at previous Olympics. This pattern may reflect the odd hybrid of personal and team competition that the tennis event embodies, for Federer excels far more on the individual stage, or it may illustrate how desperately he desires this last remaining accolade. Having just triumphed on the same stadium, ending a major drought that many thought terminal, Federer may feel satiated with success and mentally complacent. On the other hand, his confidence surely has not soared higher at any time since 2009, and the absence of Nadal exponentially enhances his chances.
Djokovic: In somewhat the opposite position from Federer, the Serb seeks to rebound from a slightly disappointing effort in his loss to the Swiss at Wimbledon. Before that semifinal, however, Djokovic had displayed scintillating tennis on arguably the surface least suited to him. Also unlike Federer, the 2008 bronze medalist thrives in the environment of national team competition and should shine if he can replicate the spirit with which he led Serbia to the Davis Cup title. The only other serious men’s contender with a Wimbledon title behind him, he long has listed an Olympic gold medal as one of his two main goals for 2012, together with Roland Garros. He fell slightly short on that occasion, and he might again here, but the determination with which he battled through oscillations in form at the clay major suggests that he will prove extremely difficult to overcome at the Olympics as well. When he last lost to Federer at a significant tournament, Roland Garros 2011, he wasted little time in avenging the setback on a stage of equal prestige.
Murray: Although he ultimately succumbed to Federer, few would deny that the Scot competed more gallantly than he had in any of his previous major finals. But Murray may feel drained from that exhausting fortnight and a shade wary of stepping onto the identical battlefield again. After each of those earlier disappointments at majors, he languished emotionally for months in the malaise that has separated him from the top three. Murray often has seized inspiration from his home fans, even when not at his most inspired, and he may lean heavily on them this week to find positive energy.
Ferrer: Suddenly the flagship of the Spanish tennis squad in the wake of Nadal’s withdrawal, this veteran has won a title on every surface this year and swept to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon. There, he capitulated to a higher-ranked opponent as he almost invariably does. In the unfamiliar role as the national #1, Ferrer might seize the opportunity to escape from his compatriot’s shadow. He already has won five titles this year, tied with Federer for the ATP lead, and rarely has lost to anyone whom he should defeat. At a unique tournament where finishing second or third offers cause for celebrations, Ferrer’s steadiness might enable him to eke out a medal without needing to defeat any of his superiors.
Tsonga: Consecutive Wimbledon semifinals have demonstrated his aptitude for a surface where he has defeated both Federer and Nadal before. At the last two majors, Tsonga recorded some of his most sustained competitive efforts, and the best-of-three format should allow him to sweep aside opponents without settling into lulls. Able to shorten games and points with his forecourt-rushing style, he seems the most likely candidate to spring a surprise at an event notorious for them. If volatile but erratic sharpshooters Mardy Fish and Fernando Gonzalez won silver medals at the last two Olympics, a similar feat by Tsonga would not surprise. On the other hand, Frenchmen typically have not acquitted themselves impressively when playing under their flag, a few recent exceptions notwithstanding.
Serena: Despite her apparent agelessness, 2012 probably offers the younger Williams her last chance at the medal that her sister owns already. Serena shares Federer’s quest of attempting to add a singles gold medal to the doubles gold medal that she claimed in Beijing. Denied by eventual gold medalist Dementieva there, she also shares the Swiss star’s challenge of revitalizing her motivation just weeks after winning Wimbledon to halt a two-year drought without major titles. As she showed during that fortnight, Serena’s serve remains by far the most imposing weapon in the women’s game when at its best, and it dazzles on grass more than anywhere else. Thrust to the brink of elimination in the early rounds by unheralded opponents, though, she cannot afford to relax her vigilance again.
Sharapova: Unable to participate in Beijing during her shoulder injury, the Russian will carry her nation’s flag after completing the career Grand Slam at Roland Garros. Sharapova became the first woman ever to achieve that feat by winning exactly one title from each major, a statistic that shows the correlation between her motivation and her results. Highly motivated to earn a medal from an event that she has followed intently since childhood, she should have recovered emotionally from returning to the champion’s circle at Paris, an experience that dulled her appetite for Wimbledon. While nothing suggests that she can overcome Serena on any surface, she should benefit from entering the tournament as neither the top-ranked player or favorite for the gold medal. Four years ago, Russian women swept the medals in Beijing. This year, hopes rest on Sharapova alone, casting her in the heroic role that she relishes.
Kvitova: Often resembling the next generation’s version of Serena, the 2011 Wimbledon champion can strike winners from anywhere on the court to anywhere else on the court and has constructed her ferocious offense around the strongest serve of her contemporaries. But Kvitova also can strike unforced errors from anywhere on the court, missing the simplest of groundstrokes on crucial points in all three of her major losses this year. Still searching for her first final of the season, she has not defeated anyone in the top 10 since five straight wins over that group at Istanbul last November. The Czech’s lower ranking might complicate her route a little, pitting her against a top-four opponent before the medal matches. The centerpiece of her nation’s Fed Cup-winning team, though, she has excelled consistently in such competition even when struggling at individual events.
Radwanska: Her charge to the Wimbledon final made converts of many overnight, but should it have? After all, she advanced through a stunningly accommodating draw that featured no opponent more intimidating than Kirilenko and Kerber. In an ironic twist, Radwanska’s most impressive performance of the fortnight came in the match that she lost to Serena, where she competed bravely and intelligently during the second and third sets while forcing the legend across the net to summon a vintage display. Resulting directly from that accomplishment, no doubt, was the honor of carrying the Polish flag, which might inspire her to build upon an outstanding first half of 2012. Radwanska needs external assistance to win gold, especially a route free of nemesis Azarenka, but one could see her earning bronze or silver with that unflustered mind.
Venus / Clijsters: Among the central reasons for their comebacks from injury and illness was the opportunity to compete in the world’s greatest athletic event. Both of these champions exited Wimbledon ignominiously following lopsided defeats, Venus falling to world #79 Vesnina in the first round. Whereas she has won five major titles on grass, Clijsters will end her career without reaching a Wimbledon final and thus will not welcome the prospect of playing the Olympics on her least profitable surface. Unlikely to reach the semifinals, necessary to harbor hopes of a medal, she should aim to enjoy an experience with her family that she can savor in her retirement. A semifinalist at no tournament in 2012, Venus also would astonish if she participated in the medal ceremony—in singles, that is. In doubles, she should end her last Olympics on a triumphant note by partnering Serena to yet another triumph for the sport’s most decorated family.