Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Games matter, but they could mean more


More team-oriented format would increase interest, some say

By Neil Schmidt
Enquirer staff writer

MASON - In nine days, thousands of athletes will parade into the Olympic Stadium in Athens. Forty-three of them are playing this week in the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters.

Sixteen years after tennis returned as a medal sport, it continues to occupy a curious place in the Olympics.

It will conduct 64-player singles tournaments just like here, even awarding rankings points - though fewer than are given in a Masters Series event like this one. It will claim nationalism, though without a team format. It will interrupt the North American summer season.

Yet, it is the Olympics. So don't dare to denigrate its significance.

"It's special to be a part of it," said Andre Agassi, who won a gold medal in 1996. "Winning the gold is one of my best highlights of my career."

Tennis, one of nine sports in the modern-day revival of the Olympics in 1896, returned in 1988 after a 64-year absence - and this time was open to professionals.

Depending on one's perspective, Olympic tennis could be considered on par with the Grand Slams or downplayed as less important than Davis Cup or Federation Cup. U.S. Olympic men's coach Patrick McEnroe, who doubles as U.S. Davis Cup coach, said the event shouldn't be overemphasized.

"I don't think it should get more attention than other sports, like track and field and swimming and gymnastics," he said. "Those people are training their whole life for this. Tennis already has its Grand Slams, its Davis Cup."

McEnroe would prefer a new format. In the past, some players have called for the separate singles and doubles draws - staged the same as all other tour events - to be replaced by a team competition.

"It's kind of weird that you are all together as a team, but then you might have to play each other," 1996 gold medalist Lindsay Davenport said during the 2000 Games.

McEnroe's suggestion is to have a team competition but still award individual medals, as in gymnastics. He and NBC analyst Bud Collins propose pool play, in part so players get multiple matches.

"The Olympics I've covered, some poor kid would come all the way from Tunisia or something, play a half-hour and they're through," Collins said.

McEnroe cites the ATP World Team Championship as a format to follow. Each day, two countries would play two singles matches and a doubles match. The four countries advancing from round-robin play to the semifinals then would decide the medals over two days.

All but two of the top 24 men's players in the world - No. 10 Lleyton Hewitt and No. 11 Agassi - are entered in the Olympics.

Roger Federer, the world's top-ranked player, said winning Olympic gold would equal his two other goals for the year: repeating at Wimbledon and finishing No. 1. Said No. 2 Andy Roddick: "If you gave me my choice to win one tournament for the whole year, the Olympics would definitely be up there."

Yet the buzz is debatable. Federer said of the tennis in Sydney, "The hype around the grounds was just incredible." But Armenia's Sargis Sargsian, who has played in the past two Olympics, said, "It's amazing when you're in the athletes' camp, but once you get to the club it becomes just another tournament."

The tennis will be contested Aug. 15-22. The first 48 entries were given by ranking, and the rest were wild cards awarded by the International Tennis Federation, based loosely on rankings.

No country can have more than four singles players and two doubles teams; those with two doubles teams must fill one from its singles lineup. The U.S. roster is Roddick, Vince Spadea, Mardy Fish and Taylor Dent in singles; brothers Bob and Mike Bryan and the Roddick-Fish pairing will play doubles.

The U.S. players' enthusiasm might be tempered by the proximity to their Davis Cup semifinal with Belarus in September.

But the Olympics' impact probably is most felt elsewhere. When tennis was added as a medal sport, the Olympic committees in many countries began funding development programs that in many cases didn't previously exist.

"I had been totally against tennis in the Olympics," Collins said. "But in small countries, this is the only way they're going to get any money (for tennis), and so that changed my mind. Because an Olympic medal, in most countries, means more than winning Wimbledon or whatever in tennis."

Gold medalists

Gold-medal winners in Olympic tennis since the 1988 return:

Men

1988: Miloslav Mecir, Czechoslovakia

1992: Marc Rosset, Switzerland

1996: Andre Agassi, USA

2000: Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Russia

Women

1988: Steffi Graf, West Germany

1992: Jennifer Capriati, USA

1996: Lindsay Davenport, USA

2000: Venus Williams, USA

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E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com




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