What Happened to Olympic Tennis?

Professional tennis entered the summer Olympics in 1988. After taking some time to get established, it’s enjoyed strong support from tennis players. In fact, an Olympic medal is now an essential requirment for being considered as one of the best players of all time.

Unfortunately, the Rio Olympics are different. While there are still top players and wonderful stories, the draws have been gutted by withdrawals. Why now, why this Olympics? There are several reasons.

Fear and a Convenient Excuse

If you’ve heard anything about the Rio Olympics, you’ve heard about the Zika virus. Many athletes, particular in tennis and golf, have dropped out because of it. Milos Raonic and Tomas Berdych withdrew. Simon Haelp and Karolina Pliskova too.

The Zika virus is not a new thing. It’s been around for at least fifty years but has only become a public health crisis recently due to its rapid expansion and, perhaps, the publicity that goes along with hosting the Olympics.

The Zika virus is also mainly harmless. Around 80% of people who contract it experience zero symptoms and the virus itself only stays in the body for roughly a week. Those who do experience symptoms might confuse it with the flu and manage it successfully with tylenol and other over the counter drugs. Life threatening effects are extremely rare. It’s only transmitted by sex and mosquitos.

That’s not to say it shouldn’t be considered a public health emergency. For a small subset of people the complications are devastating. Specifically, children born to infected women can experience microcephaly, a neurological condition leading to shrunken heads and lifelong developmental disabilities. Other public health issues include the rapid spread of Zika (several cases have been reported in Florida recently) and the complications for blood banks.

Avoiding Brazil is clearly reasonable in some circumstances. Pregnant athletes would be wise to skip, as would men with pregnant partners, or partners who might become pregnant. Similarly, it would wise for athletes to skip if they have varied and unpredictable sexual partners and prefer to use alternate forms of birth control. But for everyone else, the justification is not clear. Zika is frankly is not as much of a risk as the water in Rio, the air in Beijing, or terrorism at every major sporting event (particularly at one that just fired its entire security apparatus, as Brazil did). You can buy bug spray. If you do get infected, it probably won’t affect you and it doesn’t stay in the body. Plus, its winter in Brazil.

There’s been some interesting responses by tennis players to the Zika virus. Garbine Mugurza, for instance, wasn’t interested. “I don’t really know what is Zika,” she said. Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic, true to form, were in the research and consult camp and decided that it was safe.

Others made it sound like they received medical advice at odds with anything I could find online. Specifically, players made it sound like they’re being told that the virus will stay in the body and affect the ability to have children permanently.

“I concluded that the risks are too high for my career and for my health, especially as a woman,” Halep said in a statement on Facebook. “Family is much too important for me and I can’t risk not being able to have one of my own after my career in tennis is over.”

Berdych used similar language, even as he admitted that he did not plan to have children anytime soon. “As I have founded a family recently, to limit health risks towards my nearest is the utmost priority.”

Even a player who decided to attend Rio, Eugenie Bouchard, acknowledged thinking along similar lines. ““I don’t know if the health of my future babies is worth it. That’s what I’m trying to decide in my head.”

Perhaps the public is not received complete information about the Zika virus. Or perhaps more players should take after Andy Murray.


John Isner is also skipping Rio, but for a different reason.

The top ranked American, who also is a member of ATP players council, was disappointed that there are no ranking points offered at the Olympics and decided to play other tournaments instead. Ranking points are what determines your seed at an ATP event and, because your seed partially affects how far in the tournament you will go, are almost as important as money.

This marks a departure from previous Olympics. To some players, particularly ones like Djokovic who have a good chance to medal, the Olympics are sort of a fifth major. They’re a legacy piece. But the Olympics have always offered far fewer points. The 2012 London Olympics offered 800 points to the champion, which, while significant, placed it below even the ATP 1000 events and far below the four Majors. Meanwhile, players could opt for the Citi Open in Washington, DC, and play to earn 500 points in a draw missing most of the best players in the world.

Why did the ITF decide not to award ranking points? Perhaps it was in keeping with the amateur spirit of the Olympics, which has never awarded prize money. “In the Olympics, you play for honor, for your country and that is the main reason why no points will be distributed at the Games,” said David Taggerty, president of the International Tennis Federation. And indeed, many tennis player have decided to attend for those very reasons.

But there is a pecuniary element. For Rio, unlike previous Olympics, the ITF decided to not help affected tournaments, such as the Abierto Mexicano Los Cabos tournament, which is going on at the same time. Tennis tournaments are privately owned and have contractual relationships with the governing bodies of tennis, such as the ITF, WTA and ATP. The legal situation is complicated but the ITF likely has a clear choice: offer ranking points and compensate the tournaments for lost business or do neither.

With neither points nor money at stake at the Olympics, some players just don’t see the significance of Olympic tennis. “I really don’t like that in Olympic Games there is no points and no prize money,” Ernests Gulbis said with (I imagine) a scowl. “It’s a little bit like tennis tourism, from my side.”

It’s difficult to judge players for deciding to skip Olympic tennis and earn money and points instead, particularly for strong players like Isner who have little chance of medaling and a limited time left on tour. Still, it would be nice to see them in Rio.

I cry for you, Martina

Finally, there is the most mundane reason of all to skip — personal health. Players have pulled out for injuries both real and… something else.

Roger Federer decided to opt out of not only the Olympics but the rest of the season. Struggling with his health since after the Australian Open, he made the tough choice that it would be better to preserve strength for his twilight years than make a final push for Olympic Singles Gold.

Then there are the other kind of injuries. Sascha Zverev recently pulled out because he wasn’t “100%”. Stan Wawrinka aggravated (wink, wink) his back injury in an embarrassing loss to Kei Nishikori. Belinda Bencic, a promising young swiss player, also pulled out because she wasn’t “completely ready,” even though she acknowledged her wrist injury was healed.

The pullouts hurt no one more than Martina Hingis, one of the greatest players of all time and the top ranked doubles players. At one point, Martina was set to compete a dream mixed doubles pairing with Roger Federer and a very strong women’s doubles team with Bencic, who is coached by Martina’s mom. Then, after Federer pulled out, she was set to pair with Wawrinka, who already has a Gold in Men’s Doubles. Then Stan and Bencic and pulled out.

This is what it looks like when dreams are crushed, set on fire and scattered. Hingis is now forced to secure a medal for her legacy with Timea Bacsinszky. Timea is good, but still. Good luck, Martina.

In all, five of the top 10 Men’s players and many of the best women’s players will not be competing. Because many of the final rounds are almost set in stone — Novak and Andy in the Men’s Singles final, Serena in the Women’s Singles final and the Williams Sisters in the Women’s doubles final- a lot of the drama would have occurred in the early rounds. That’s less likely to happen with so many top players missing. Here’s to Tokyo 2020.