Flags for ALL the Tennis Players!

Apparently this guy is some important soccer player? Yeah, whatever.

Tennis was a part of the inaugural 1896 Olympic Games in Athens but was dropped after the 1924 Games. After two appearances as a demonstration sport, it returned as a medal event in the 1988 Games. It has been argued that tennis, as a tournament sport, has no place at the Olympics; many have argued whether an Olympic gold holds equal merit to a Grand Slam title. Elena Dementieva never won a Grand Slam, but is widely considered a sporting hero in Russia for bringing home the gold in Beijing. Clearly Mr. Hamann hasn’t heard any of this, or doesn’t understand the definition of pinnacle.

Tim Henman:

 “I have some great memories of that Olympics, such as going to the Opening Ceremony – that was fantastic, walking into the stadium and being around all those other athletes. I loved the opportunity at the Olympics to watch other sports, to see other athletes in action. Winning a medal at the Olympics is very special.”

Roger Federer:

“…The Olympic gold is a dream for me.  I believe I can handle the pressure but the Olympics is a different animal because you only do get an opportunity every four years.”

Venus Williams:

“That’s all I’ve fought for this whole year, so I hope that I can play well there. For me it will just be an honor to be there, and try to capitalize on that moment…they’re the time of my life, especially when I got to win. But also being able to get to that point in my career has been amazing for me.”

Victoria Azarenka:

 “I have an…opportunity to represent my country at such an event and it’s just something unexplainable in words.”

The Opening Ceremony for the London Games will take place on July 27th, and tennis players will have a huge presence. I’m not kidding. At present, EIGHT tennis players will be the flag bearer for their nation at the ceremony: Marcos Baghdatis (Cyprus), Novak Djokovic (Serbia), Max Mirnyi (Belarus), Rafael Nadal (Spain), Agnieszka Radwanska (Poland), Maria Sharapova (Russia), Horia Tecau (Romania) and Stephanie Vogt (Liechtenstein). Number nine Tsvetana Pironkova (Bulgaria) was reportedly confirmed earlier in the week, but the Bulgarian Olympic Committee released a statement that their decision had not yet been made. Lindsay Davenport, commentating for Tennis Channel in Stanford last week, let it slip that Serena Williams is on the short list for the United States, which would bring the total to 10. It was also reported that Federer was asked to be the flag bearer (again) for Switzerland, but is mulling over turning it down to give someone else an opportunity.

It was great for tennis when two or three players were selected for the honor. Are we in overkill territory now? Perhaps. In Beijing, two players carried the flag: Roger Federer (Switzerland) and Fernando Gonzalez (Chile). In Athens, four players enjoyed the honor: Federer, Claudine Schaul (Luxembourg), Paradorn Srichaphan (Thailand) and Abdo Abdallah (Djibouti). Now, we all know tennis players are professionals. They travel the world every year for tournaments, and have their big moments at the four Grand Slams. Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Sharapova receive millions of dollars in endorsements from companies around the world. Of course the Olympics are special to them, but for different reasons. On the tours, players are playing for themselves, and rarely have an opportunity to play for their country. On the other hand, there are some tennis players who are living the Olympic dream. Stephanie Vogt, who has received an ITF invitation, will be leading a team of three athletes in the Parade of Nations. Three. Max Mirnyi and Horia Tecau are doubles specialists, who are probably not as well known outside of their nations and tennis circles.  This is their moment too.

At the end of the day, the Parade of Nations is a fitting name. Countries put their best on display, and tennis players are probably some of the best known athletes from many of these countries. Yes, the wrestlers, swimmers and rowers toil for years to have their moment in the sun at the Olympics. But do most of you know their names? It’s a harsh question, but one that needs to be examined. It’s an honor for all athletes just to make it there and they all play under the same flag, no matter who is holding it.

Players’ Olympic Dreams Morph to Nightmares

Many have attempted to make the argument that tennis has no place in the Olympics. Tell that to the players. For months, players have been doing their best to fulfill the ITF requirements for London. A ranking in the top 56 for singles is sufficient, coupled with availability in two Fed Cup or Davis Cup ties in the Olympic cycle. However, despite fulfilling ITF requirements, many players are being denied the chance at their Olympic dream by their national Olympic committees.

New Zealand’s Marina Erakovic was the first player embroiled in Olympic controversy. Due to a late withdrawal from a zonal tie against in 2011, New Zealand’s Fed Cup team was banned from competing in 2012 by the ITF. ITF rules require players to make themselves available for Fed Cup country in two of the four years of the Olympic cycle, including one of the past two years. Erakovic, who competed in three zonal ties in 2010 and four in 2009, would not fulfill the requirements of Fed Cup eligibility because of the ban. The New Zealand Tennis Federation is looking to appeal, but the ITF isn’t Erakovic’s only hurdle. The New Zealand Olympic Committee requires all competitors to “demonstrate an ability of finishing in the top 16  and be capable of going on to finish in the top eight.”

Sofia Arvidsson, No. 48 in the rankings and the top-ranked Swede, is ranked comfortably inside the Olympic cutoff. She has played 15 zonal and group Fed Cup ties for her country since 2009. She will not be going to London. Sweden’s Olympic Committee insists that athletes in all sports should only be selected if they are “capable of a top-8 finish.” She took to Twitter on Tuesday to vent her frustration and disappointment.

Germany requires its players to be ranked within the top 24, or reach the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam or semifinals at a WTA Premier Mandatory/Premier 5 or ATP Masters 1000. Julia Goerges, ranked No. 25 at the cut-off, will miss the cut on the ladies’ side, and Florian Mayer, ranked #29 and Philipp Kohlschreiber, who defeated Rafael Nadal in straight sets in the quarterfinals in Halle on Friday, will be excluded from the men’s draw. Mona Barthel, ranked No. 32, will be excluded due to the “four per country” rule.

Julia Goerges, center and Mona Barthel, right, could potentially be excluded from a loaded German women’s squad. 

The list goes on. David Goffin, the lucky loser who stormed through the draw at Roland Garros before giving Roger Federer all he could handle in a four-set fourth round match, has only taken part in one Davis Cup tie. He may still sneak in, as Belgium insists its players have reached at least the fourth round of a Grand Slam or the quarter-finals of a Masters 1000. Tamira Paszek, who reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2011, only participated in one Fed Cup tie in the past two years due to injury. She will need exemption from the ITF to compete. Ksenia Pervak, currently ranked #41, who switched nationalities from Russia to Kazakhstan will also require exemption from the ITF, which is not likely.

The Indian doubles pairing of Rohan Bopanna and Mahesh Bhupathi are also in a fierce fight with the All India Tennis Association (AITA). Bopanna parted ways with  Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi, with whom he reached the US Open final, to partner with Bhupathi this season with eyes set on London. However, Leander Paes, currently ranked in the top 10 in doubles, receives direct entry and needs a partner. Paes and Bhupathi have had a historically up and down relationship, and allegedly haven’t spoken since November. Bhupathi and Bopanna released a joint statement, and Bhupathi has expressed if he is selected to play with Paes, he will not compete.

The final team announcements will be made on June 28th.

From Russia with Love…That’s Slumping

For the past 10 years, Russia has had a large number of players occupying the top spots in the WTA Tour rankings. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Russian women swept the medals with Elena Dementieva winning gold, Dinara Safina taking silver and Vera Zvonareva finishing with bronze. Four years later, the Olympic picture is much different for the Russian team. With Dementieva retired and Safina sidelined indefinitely with a back injury, the Russians no longer hold the vicegrip on the WTA rankings they once did. Russians occupied five of the top ten places in the world rankings in 2008; currently, there are only two in the top 20.

Rules for Olympic team nominations are as follows (courtesy of the ITF):

The main qualifying criteria is the ATP and WTA ranking lists as of June 11, 2012…Players must have also participated in two Fed Cup events from 2009 – 2012, one of which must have taken place in 2011-2012, and have a good standing with their National Olympic Committee. Each NOC can enter 6 men and 6 women athletes, with a maximum of 4 entries in the individual events, and 2 pairs in the doubles events. Any player in the world’s top 56 is eligible, and NOC’s have the option to enter players of a lower rank. Athletes are able to compete in both singles and doubles events. Doubles players within the top 10 rankings on 11 June are eligible provided that the number of players of the same nation doesn’t surpass the total of six.

Leaving #2 Maria Sharapova (W/L: 18-4 Best Result: F Australian Open, Indian Wells, Miami) out of the equation, the win-loss records of the next five (singles rankings as of April 2nd) Russian women this year are a mixed bag at best:

#9 Vera Zvonareva W/L: 7-6 Best Result: QF Charleston

#21 Maria Kirilenko W/L: 14-7 Best Result: F Pattaya City

#22 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova W/L: 3-8 Best Result: R16 Brisbane

#25 Svetlana Kuznetsova W/L: 11-7 Best Result: R16 Brisbane, Doha

#35 Nadia Petrova W/L 5-6 Best Result: QF Charleston

Shamil Tarpishchev, Russia’s Fed Cup and Olympic team captain, expressed his concerns in a recent column for tennis.sport-express.ru. He specifically adressed team stalwarts Zvonareva and Kuznetsova, who had lost their opening round matches at the Sony Ericsson Open (l. to Muguruza Blanco and Benesova, respectively). Tarpishchev discussed Zvonareva’s bouts with injuries (shoulder and hip) and illness, as well as Kuznetsova’s lack of focus in winning positions.

  

l to r: Vera Zvonareva, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s struggles in 2012 have been well documented. 

Based off of these rankings, Russia’s four singles players would be Sharapova, Zvonareva, Kirilenko and Pavlyuchenkova. Pavlyuchenkova’s slump has been particularly alarming; the 21-year-old, who made the quarterfinals of both Roland Garros and the US Open last year, has lost in the first round of all but three events this season. The Russian who has had arguably the 2nd best season behind Sharapova in singles is #39 Ekaterina Makarova, who had a stunning run to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open (d. Zvonareva, S. Williams en route, l. to Sharapova) and the fourth round in Miami (d. Pavlyuchenkova en route, l. to Sharapova). Going only by current rankings, she would not make the team, although her form this season should suggest otherwise.

Kirilenko, the 3rd Russian in the singles rankings, is also ranked in the top 10 in doubles. She, along with Elena Vesnina, would be directly qualified to compete with any partner in the doubles competition if the current rankings stand. However, Kuznetsova and Zvonareva partnered to win the Australian Open in doubles and Petrova is paired with Kirilenko to start the season; she is currently ranked 16th in doubles. Kirilenko and Petrova took home their biggest title as a pair in winning the Sony Ericsson Open (d. Kuzntsova/Zvonareva en route, d. Errani/Vinci for title). Vesnina competes in events with India’s Sania Mirza, and there is speculation that Vesnina would be left off the team.

 

l to r: Kuznetsova and Zvonareva’s triumph at the Australian Open and Kirilenko and Petrova’s win in Miami might leave top tenner Elena Vesnina out of the Russian women’s doubles equation. 

With Roland Garros looming on the horizon, the race to the Olympics will be a big story throughout the European clay season. While the Russians are blessed with enormous depth, there are questions if their best players can round into form in time.