Puig, Murray & Delpo rock the Rio Olympics

If sports be metaphor for life, then Murray, loser of so many Grand Slam finals, Del Potro, survivor of so many career-threatening injuries, and Puig, underdog no one imagined could win gold, prove that hard work, resilience, and self-belief can make dreams come true.

Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina kisses the Olympic rings on the court after defeating Rafael Nadal of Spain in the men's singles semifinals at the Olympic Tennis Centre in Rio de Janeiro.   -  Getty Images

Celebration, Spanish style... Rafael Nadal falls on top of his partner Marc Lopez after vanquishing Daniel Nestor and Vasek Pospisil of Canada in the men's doubles semifinal.   -  Getty Images

The Olympic Games offer neither prize money nor ranking points to pro tennis players. These globetrotting athletes seek something far more precious. They yearn for, and fight for, gold, silver, and bronze medals for their beloved countries, and secondarily, for the glory, perhaps even immortality, these quadrennial medals confer.

Emotional scenarios that are improbable, even at Grand Slam tournaments, abounded in Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Olympics. Rafael Nadal, a 14-time major singles champion and a singles gold medallist in Beijing in 2008, fell on top of prone Marc Lopez, his doubles partner and long-time friend, to celebrate their doubles semifinal victory. Then Nadal hugged and kissed him. “Amazing experience, especially doing that with one of my best friends,” enthused Nadal. The Spanish matador and his sidekick went on to win the doubles gold medal, allowing Nadal to join Serena and Venus Williams and Nicolas Massu as the only tennis players to capture both singles and doubles gold.

 

Star-crossed Juan Martin del Potro and reigning tennis king Novak Djokovic reacted to the ecstasy of victory and the agony of defeat in the same way. After Del Potro, the 2009 US Open champion ranked a lowly No. 141 following multiple wrist surgeries, shocked Djokovic 7-6, 7-6 in the Olympic first round, they both wept.

Neither fear of Zika nor of violent crime kept Serena and Venus from competing in Brazil. The world famous superstars, the best sister act in sports history, each boasted a tennis record four gold medals and sought more in what would likely be their last Olympics. Four years ago in London, Serena overwhelmed the field, dropping only 16 games in five matches. She called her 6-0, 6-1 gold medal demolition of Maria Sharapova the best match she’s ever played.

In Rio, she played her worst match. In a mystifyingly inept performance —did a shoulder injury cause it? — she double-faulted five times to give away the pivotal 3-3 game in the second set, committed 37 unforced errors, and was upset 6-4, 6-3 by Elina Svitolina in the third round. When serving the final game, a distraught Serena was on the verge of tears. To compound her woes, she and Venus, winners of a record three doubles gold medals, were upset in the first round.

Madison Keys’ bid for a gold medal also ended in heartbreak. The 21-year-old American, whom Serena tabbed as a future No. 1, lost potentially match-changing points and fell to World No. 2 Angelique Kerber 6-3, 7-5 in a hard-hitting semifinal. Tears welled in Keys’ eyes afterward when she graciously said, “It’s frustrating when you have 10 break points and don’t convert one. It’s tough also because she was playing so well. . . . She is just not giving you anything.”

In the surprise-filled Rio Games, the No. 1 seeds in men’s and women’s singles and doubles were all eliminated by the third round. Another young comer, Monica Puig, was the biggest giant-killer of all. Puig, who had won just one of her 80 career tournaments and started the year ranked No. 92, stunned French Open champion Garbine Muguruza 6-1, 6-1 and then upset two-time Wimbledon titlist Petra Kvitova 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 to reach the final. After match point, the exultant Puig leaped so high in joy that it looked like she was auditioning for the trampoline team.

Puig would beg to differ with Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the Modern Olympics in 1896, who declared, “The Olympic Games were created for the exaltation of the individual athlete.” For the 22-year-old Puerto Rican, the thrill of victory was far more patriotic than personal. Referring to her country’s economic crisis and soaring crime rate, Puig emphasised, “This Olympics isn’t about me. It’s about Puerto Rico, and I know how bad they want this. The island is full of such bad news all the time, so every time . . . somebody from the island wins a medal, everything stops. I know how happy everybody gets.”

This island nation of 3.6 million people was captivated by Puig’s performances in Rio. After she became the first Puerto Rican woman to win a medal of any kind, they wondered whether their rising tennis star would give Puerto Rico its first Olympic gold medal. Businesses and schools closed, and there were hardly any cars in the main street of San Juan as nearly everyone was glued to the television.

Bravo tennis analyst Rennae Stubbs revealed that Puig emailed her, “I’m ready to continue to write my name in the history book.” It quickly became apparent she was ready. Though a heavy underdog against Australian Open champion and Wimbledon runner-up Kerber and the lowest-ranked woman at No. 34 to play for a gold medal, the confident Puig blasted 18 winners, the last a backhand down the line to grab the first set 6-4.

Kerber’s three biggest assets — superior defensive skills, left-handed style, and greater experience — helped her break Puig’s serve twice and take the second set 6-4.

Would the puncher defeat the counter-puncher?

The answer came soon. The fearless Puig belted three winners and an ace to hold serve at love. Then she poured it on, getting two quick service breaks to race ahead 5-0 in the deciding set. Puig, who wound up with an astounding 54 winners, converted her fourth gold medal point in a tense, fluctuating 18-point game to produce one of the season’s biggest upsets, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1.

After collapsing on the court and crying after her triumph — a frequent celebratory ritual at these Games — Puig couldn’t hold back the tears again on the podium when the Puerto Rican national anthem was played. “I just can’t believe it,” Puig told the boisterous crowd. “I think I united a nation. And I just love where I came from.”

Brazil, the first South American country to stage the Olympics, was beset with all kinds of health, economic, and political problems, including the impeachment of their president. Amidst this adversity, Olympic spectators were certainly in the mood to back an underdog like the unseeded Puig. “What I did hear everybody saying is, ‘Yes, you can, yes, you can, yes, you can.’ I kept repeating it inside myself, ‘Yes, I can, yes, I can, yes, I can,’” said the appreciative Puig. “It helped me believe and show me they were there for me whether I was going to win or lose. I was so proud of the support I had out there tonight.”



  Crowd inspires Del Potro

The rowdy soccer-style crowd also inspired another underdog, a fellow South American, the genial Del Potro, throughout the nine-day tennis event. The 6’6” Argentine confided, “I cannot believe the moment. The crowd makes me cry in every match. Every match feels like a final for me. It’s a very special tournament.”

After being sidelined with wrist problems for 11 months in both 2014 and 2015, the former World No. 4 contemplated retirement. Fortunately, Delpo decided to give the sport he loves so much yet another try in 2016, even if his sore left wrist forced him to use a one-handed slice backhand more often than he’d like. Heartening wins over No. 14 Dominic Thiem on Madrid clay and No. 5 Stan Wawrinka on Wimbledon grass showed Delpo he was clearly reviving his career.

After ambushing Djokovic, Delpo notched three more victories before facing Nadal, who entered the Olympics after not playing a tournament match for 73 days following his withdrawal from the French Open. In the quarterfinals, Nadal, also bothered by wrist soreness, overcame red-hot Brazilian lefty Thomaz Bellucci 2-6, 6-4, 6-2 and nearly 10,000 wildly partisan supporters. He would face another tough crowd against the immensely popular Del Potro in the semifinals.

Could Del Potro use the crowd’s energy one more time to upset Nadal, who had never lost at the Olympics? Could 30-year-old Nadal, who had played 21 sets, 199 games, and 16 hours and 46 minutes in the previous seven days, compete with the same passion and stamina one more time?

With the Argentine angling to exploit his ferocious forehand as often as possible and the more versatile Spaniard trying to keep him on the run and off balance, Nadal took the first set 7-5 and Del Potro the second set 6-4. Nadal made three nervous errors to lose his serve and fall behind 5-4 in the deciding set. He reversed the momentum and broke Del Potro at love for 5-5 with a sensational running forehand passing shot, evoking memories of Nadal in his prime.

Two games later, in the tiebreaker, the tiring Nadal fell behind 3-0. He battled back valiantly to trail only 6-5, thanks, ironically, to three winners from his weaker backhand. Then, on match point for Delpo, Nadal missed his usual breadwinner, an inside-out forehand, in the alley.

Relieved as much as overjoyed, Del Potro raised his arms in victory and fell on his back. The crowd roared in delight. After giving Nadal a congratulatory hug at the net, Del Potro lay face down on the Olympic Tennis Stadium court for 20 seconds and then kissed the Olympic rings.

After praising the Argentine and Brazilian fans as “amazing,” Del Potro said, “I don’t know if I’ll be ready for (the final) tomorrow. But I’ve already won the silver medal. It is enough for me.”

Even if Delpo’s heart were willing, his weary body might not last against the versatile, resourceful, and less-fatigued Andy Murray. The second-seeded Murray had logged only 8 hours, 10 minutes in Olympic singles compared to 11 hours, 56 minutes for Del Potro. And while the Argentine was re-emerging as an elite player in Rio, the Brit was enjoying his best summer after winning Wimbledon, plus 17 straight matches, and 28 of his last 29.

Del Potro’s Cinderella story got off to a rough start. Murray, a consummate serve returner and tactical genius, broke Del Potro’s serve three times in the opening set, taking it 7-5 on a backhand passing shot winner. After Del Potro couldn’t reach a nifty Murray drop shot in the first game of the second set, he rested his head on the net. Was he exhausted already?

With some spectators singing “Ole, ole, ole, ole! Del-po! Del-po!” for their South American favourite between points, Del Potro summoned the energy to seize the second set 7-5, clinching it with two forehand winners. Before the third set, Bravo analyst Paul Annacone, who formerly coached Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, predicted, “I’ll be shocked if Del Potro can last five sets after what he’s gone through this week.”

Murray ran Del Potro ragged with penetrating and angled groundstrokes, drop shots, and lobs to easily capture the pivotal third set 6-2. Del Potro desperately wanted to shorten the points, but going for forehand winners from untenable positions against a defensive wizard on a slow hard court too often proved a losing formula.

The fourth set started with four straight service breaks, but the crowd again revived Del Potro, who earlier confided that winning an Olympic gold medal would mean more to him than his US Open title.

Del Potro’s chances suddenly looked good again when he broke serve and held his own serve for a 5-3 lead in the fourth set. But the tenacious Murray, concentrating rather than sulking (his old downfall) when the going got tough, rebounded to break Del Potro’s serve on his fourth break point for 5-5. He then escaped two break points of his own to go ahead 6-5. Sadly, Delpo ran out of gas in the last game, meekly stroking two backhands in the net to end the dramatic four-hour and two-minute duel.

“I cannot describe how I did tonight,” Del Potro said. “For sure, the crowds make me run all the time, one more ball. I never give up because of them, because I saw my team, I saw all the Argentinian people who came to watch me in the finals. My country was behind me watching on TV. I felt all of these things on court. That’s why I tried to never give up and fight until the end point.”

Looking more stressed out than exultant, Murray cried into a towel. “It’s been a very emotional 10 days,” Murray said in an on-court interview. “This caps off an amazing 10 days for me.”

Murray’s 7-5, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory made him the first player to win two gold medals in singles. (Federer and Djokovic have yet to win one.) The Scot who voted for independence for his land of birth nonetheless said carrying the British flag at the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Games was “the proudest moment of my career.”

Playing the best tennis of his 29-year-old life, Murray should have many proud moments to come. In fact, riding the momentum of his Wimbledon title and Olympic gold medal, Murray is a slight favourite to dethrone Djokovic at the US Open and as the reigning No. 1 player.

If sports be metaphor for life, then Murray, loser of so many Grand Slam finals, Del Potro, survivor of so many career-threatening injuries, and Puig, underdog no one imagined could win gold, prove that hard work, resilience, and self-belief can make dreams come true.