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Tennis: How worthy are the Olympics in comparison to the Grand Slams?

With Nadal,Thiem withdrawing from the Tokyo Games, the long-standing debate regarding which event is more important - the Grand Slams or the Olympics, have resurfaced.

Tennis: How worthy are the Olympics in comparison to the Grand Slams?

Serena Williams and Venus Williams at the 2012 London Olympics, Image Source: Getty


Sohinee Basu

Updated: 26 Jun 2021 11:41 AM GMT

Of late, tennis is seeing a string of top players pulling out of the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. At first, it was 2-time Olympic gold medallist Rafael Nadal who intimated about his absence from the quadrennial Games before 2020 US Open champion, Dominic Thiem and Canada's Denis Shapovalov joined the chorus. Both clay-court specialists, Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem are choosing to opt out of the back-to-back events - the Wimbledon Championships and the prestigious Tokyo Olympics, in order to tend to their health.

While 20-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal intends to prolong his career and be wise about which battles to pick, Dominic Thiem has been riddled with a right wrist injury during the ATP 250 Mallorca Championships. Incidentally enough, this won't be the first time that this duo is skipping the Games as they have sat it out previously as well - again, due to health and injury trouble.

Preferring to rather save their energy for the all-important Grand Slams rather than travel to Japan to play at the Tokyo Olympics during a pandemic, players are really weighing their cards before participating anywhere, no matter how honorable it is. In the coming days, more people might pull out and it would be hardly surprising as the attitude in the tennis camp is leaning towards withdrawals currently.

The debate regarding whether tennis should be a part of the Olympics roster has been long-standing with myriad views. While the Grand Slams occur periodically, appearing four times every year, the Olympic Games comes once in four years. This adds a sense of 'limited'-ness to it perhaps but in all truth, tennis players have been known to prioritise the Grand Slam events more than this, and the reasons for it are solid, too.

"I don't necessarily think it maybe should be an Olympic sport. Some sports in the Olympics — that and golf — you know, I feel like maybe shouldn't be there. It just wasn't a priority of mine at all. We have four . . . Grand Slams. Those kind of take precedent. Those are the main focus for us." - Sam Querrey had mentioned quite frankly in an interview.

The reappearance of tennis as a medal sport at the Olympics

Podium finish at the 2012 London Olympics - Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Juan Martin del Potro, Image Source: AP

Tennis made a comeback at the Olympics as a medal sport after a long gap of sixty years. Discontinued in 1924, tennis was once again included in the quadrennial Games from the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Strangely enough, it was met with a lot of frowns from top players who withdrew from the Olympics as till date, the Games are seen only second-in-place to the much more competitive and exclusive Grand Slam tournaments.

Eight of the top 10 players in the ATP rankings during the week of the 1988 Olympics did not play in the Games. The likes of Mats Wilander, Pete Sampras openly criticised the multi-sporting extravaganza and emphatically pointed out how a Grand Slam would mean much more than an Olympic medal.

"An Olympic gold medal wouldn't be like winning the Davis Cup or a Grand Slam tournament," Mats Wilander said, according to The Associated Press, soon after winning the1988 US Open title against Ivan Lendl.

However, this opinion has changed over the past few editions of the Olympic Games. Players do look forward to the Olympics and compete for the glory of the nation. The likes of the Williams sisters - Venus and Serena, have dominated both the circuits - the Grand Slam as well as the Olympic ones. The older Williams, Venus, has won 5 Olympic medals so far - one at least from every event - singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Meanwhile Serena, a 23-time Grand Slam champion, has won the Olympic gold four times as well.

On the other hand, Rafael Nadal has also bagged gold for Spain in his debut outing at the 2008 Beijing Games where Novak Djokovic settled for bronze. In 2012, it was Andy Murray who crowned himself the champion in London while Roger Federer clinched the silver honour. Andy Murray continued his golden run well into the 2016 Rio Olympics where he picked up the gold again. In fact, Murray, who was out of regular tennis action owing to a hip injury, is ready to come back to the Tokyo Olympics to defend his gold - because the Games hold importance to him.

The re-inclusion of tennis by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was also done as a strategic measure. Having tennis as a part of its event roster would ensure that the viewership goes up as top players are most likely to attend it. Being a vastly popular sport, tennis is supposed to fetch the eyeballs and spike up the revenue easily. With top-billed players attending the Olympics, it did give an attractive, audience-friendly Grand Slam feel but for the players, winning a medal for the country and lifting a Slam did not equate in emotions, at all.

Which has the greater glory - the Olympics or the Grand Slams?

Andy Murray, a 2-time Olympic gold medallist, Image Source: USA Today

To state quite harshly, the rush that is present in Grand Slams does not compare to the rush of winning a medal for the country. The Olympics have a patriotic flavour about it which cannot be overlooked while the Grand Slams are more individual and performance-focussed. The joy associated with both events, while immense, vary greatly in degree.

Players interested in participating in the tennis event at the Olympics need to prioritise where their interests lie. The Olympics herald in glory for the country while Grand Slam victories are usually the triumph of the individual.

Ever since the 2016 Rio Olympics, no points are awarded to the tennis players taking part in the Games which means that their performance would not mean much except that they can collect hardware to show off. The ranking system worked from 2004 Athens to the 2012 London Games, before it got ruled out, prompting more players to doubly think before participating in a Games where their performance won't be counted, as such.

Dedicating time for the Olympics, therefore, will come at a cost. Players who are ranked low and are looking to improve their rankings will stand nothing to gain by participating at the Games. Meanwhile, top players, with little to lose, can easily participate if they want to, as rankings aren't their primary concern.

More importantly, the Olympics inevitably coincides with a number of WTA and ATP tournaments happening around the same time and certain players hungry for individual success tend to choose those tournaments more in hopes of bettering their rank.

Finally, the charm of an Olympic glory is most different - players have to know what they want, before heading into the Games. If they dream of hearing their country's national anthem being played at the podium and a whole nation cheering for them, then the Olympics is the highest stage of achieving that feat for any athlete.

True enough, being an Olympian brings with it a fair share of honour and respect, especially in the country you hail from. By participating in the Olympics, players have to mandatorily put their country first and unleash their zeal for the nation, more than anything else, which forms the major strain of difference between Grand Slams and the Olympic Games. As far as the worthiness quotient goes, the Olympics and the Grand Slam bring different cards of joy to the table and it is ultimately up to the player to decide which one they should value more - individual glory or a nation's pride.

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