Leaving London: Reflections on the Olympics
Saturated with color were the typically monochrome surroundings of the All England Club, which produced an equally vibrant week of tennis at the 2012 Olympics. So swiftly did the action rush forward that days blurred together for those seeking to stay abreast of all five events. But certain themes stood out in clear silhouettes from the rest. We recount twelve to remember.
Serena’s dominance: At the ripe old age of 30, the 14-time major champion still can grip the WTA in a stranglehold whenever she wants. As four different players who have held the #1 ranking failed to win more than four games from Serena, she demonstrated just how far she towers above the competition when healthy and motivated. She rarely marches through a tournament of this magnitude without a single lapse, yet not even the briefest of tremors marred a gold standard that no others could even aspire to equal. Known for her flair for the dramatic, Serena eschewed her normal attitude to an Olympics that featured virtually no suspense at all regarding who would win the gold. Now the WTA leader in titles this year, she has become the third prominent women’s star of the last three years to play perhaps her best tennis ever after returning from a prolonged absence.
Murray’s fortitude: After his first three major finals ended in disaster, Murray required months to heal his spirits as a series of tame early losses followed. Far from meek in his second trip to the All England Club this year, he rebounded immediately from the disappointment of losing the Wimbledon final to Federer. Facing the same opponent in the same circumstances, Murray understandably could have settled for a silver medal rather than investing himself emotionally in a match with the odds tilted steeply against him. But he overcame those odds in emphatic fashion, allowing Federer just seven games in a match that may have signaled the long-awaited arrival of the Scot as a genuine contender. Although Murray still has not won a major, a different type of challenge, his consecutive victories on home soil over the top two men should allow him to believe more than ever before.
Federer’s frailty: Fortunate to arrive at the gold-medal match in the first place, Federer came within two points of playing Djokovic for bronze and facing the prospect of a fourth straight Olympics without a singles medal. The doubles gold medalist from Beijing could not recover in time from an epic encounter with Del Potro that lasted longer than his five-set final against Roddick at Wimbledon 2009, despite a rest day between matches. Contrasting with Djokovic’s ability to recover at the Australian Open this year, Federer’s failure to replenish his reserves of energy showed his age and shed some perspective on his Wimbledon triumph. As remarkable as his return to Slam glory and the #1 ranking is, he can afford fewer missteps than he once could and cannot dominate the game as he once did.
Sharapova’s passion: If anyone wondered whether tennis players could catch Olympic fever, Sharapova’s matches would have banished all doubts. Embracing the spirit of the event without restraint, the Russian flagbearer pulsated with an intensity that registered 11 on a scale of 1 to 10. Until Serena stifled her, Sharapova branded her determination on matches even more implacably than usual, brandishing her fist relentlessly on relatively minor points and welcoming any positive development with a savage roar. Mounting a stirring comeback against Wimbledon nemesis Lisicki, she showed no mercy to sentimental favorite Clijsters or former doubles partner and friend Kirilenko. After the post-Roland Garros lull, this tournament represented the second peak of perhaps her best season ever. Sharapova will spare no effort in pursuing she wants by whatever means available—and she tends to get it.
Djokovic’s stumble: When 2012 began, the then-#1 openly identified Roland Garros and the Olympics as his two principal objectives, so his medal-less week in London will have fallen far short of expectations. An odd mixture of edgy and tentative during his semifinal loss to Murray, Djokovic looked more like his mid-2010 self than the bulletproof warrior of last year. Just as he did at Roland Garros against Nadal, he donated a series of poor errors to surrender his chance for gold. Ultimately unable to collect even a bronze, he must regroup after of failing to secure either of his goals for the season and find some other fuel to propel himself forward. If he cannot, Djokovic might fade sharply through the next few months without the sense of purpose or desire required to succeed at the elite level.
Del Potro’s resilience: Thwarted constantly by top-four opponents since his return from wrist surgery, Argentina’s gentle, dormant giant finally stirred to life at Wimbledon by flustering Federer far longer than anyone would have expected. The bitter defeat that he forced himself to accept in that match did not deflect the quietly determined Del Potro from winning Argentina’s first Olympic medal in men’s singles. Not only did his physical and mental durability from the Federer marathon impress, but so did his classy reaction to it. More mature than many of his peers, Del Potro calmly returned to the court for his mixed-doubles match despite his exhaustion and then patiently gave interviews well into the evening. He may lack the stylish elegance or rugged physicality of his rivals, but he showed a grace of his own this week.
Azarenka’s professionalism: Not exactly known for this attribute on most occasions, Azarenka deserves at least some credit for settling back to business after Serena crushed her gold-medal aspirations. Securing only three games from the impenetrable champion, she did not toss away the rest of the weekend in a fit of piqued pride. Instead, Azarenka submitted a polished, steady performance to earn the bronze medal in singles and then combined with Max Mirnyi to win the first gold medal in the history of mixed doubles. Although she has not won a title since Indian Wells, her fans should feel thrilled and proud with her accomplishments at the Olympics, which confirmed her durability and may have marked another step forward in her evolution. Notorious for fast starts and slow finishes to seasons, Azarenka may have thrust that habit behind her.
Tsonga’s energy: Battling Raonic through a 48-game final set, the longest of several overtime final sets at the Olympics, the charismatic Frenchman strode back onto the court the next day for both singles and doubles. He won both despite the four hours of exertion in the previous match and ended the week with a well-deserved silver medal in doubles. Often at his best on grass, Tsonga shone under the spotlight of national expectations as he has before at the Paris Indoors (although not at Roland Garros). Those acrobatic leaps and lunges about the court, during and after matches, clearly represent only a modest indication of his seemingly limitless strength.
Clijsters’ farewell: Handed the daunting assignment of Sharapova one round before the medal matches, the Belgian could not shed enough of her injury-caused rust to trouble her fiercely determined rival. The scene of the Russian glaring contemptuously across the net at her modest serves surely did not feature in the heartwarming comeback screenplay that Clijsters had hoped to script, culminating in a medal. Before this anticlimactic conclusion, though, she delivered three strong victories that she will remember fondly after her career ends next month. And the mere experience of competing at the Olympics itself probably made the effort worthwhile.
Kvitova’s disappearance: While Kirilenko played an inspired match in halting the 2011 Wimbledon champion before the medal rounds, Kvitova should not have allowed this upset to happen on one of her best surfaces. Still without a final this year and without a victory over a top-10 opponent, she has floundered longer than reasonably necessary after winning her maiden major, despite reaching two major semifinals this year. Kvitova now travels to the North American hard courts, where she has recorded her worst results of all, so the fall probably can’t come soon enough. Or does she need a new year to hit the reset button?
Family achievements: The American duos of the Bryan brothers and Williams sisters struck again in London, probably for the last time, and reminded viewers of the special chemistry that no other teams can quite duplicate. For Venus, the triumph probably represented her last great achievement and the reward that she sought when returning from her illness. No matter how completely Serena has eclipsed her in singles, the elder Williams always can remind that the younger that she wouldn’t own a career Golden Slam in doubles without the aid of her sister.
Mixed doubles’ debut: Never taken as seriously as the other forms of tennis competition, this event’s entrance to the Olympic Games featured a handful of entertaining moments but more often seemed like an exhibition or lower level of event. The 16-team draw, which allows players to reach medal rounds after just two victories, must expand to provide some legitimacy for the competition. At the moment, it resembles a quick, cheap way for players who missed out in other events to snag an easy medal with a bit of luck and a well-chosen partner.